A Bend in the River: Naipaul’s “masterpiece”? If so, scratch him from the list of “masters”!

I read in several obituaries that Bend in the River (1979) was V. S. Naipaul’s  (1932-2018) masterpiece. It has been gathering dust on a bookcase of unread books for nearly three decades. I was not engaged by the beginning, and was never very interested in the narrator, an unobservant Muslim of South Asian ancestry who grew up on the east coast of Africa and settled as a storekeeper in the middle (not Uganda, seemingly Mobutu’s Congo/Zaire). Salim has opinions about many matters, but the book seems more a set of mini-essays than a novel. It has Naipaul’s misogyny and cruelty to women, his contempt for Africans, though not developing his hatred for Islam and contempt for South Asians.

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I don’t think the book idealizes European colonialism, though painting a gloomy picture of a post-independence cult of a ruler who can only be toppled by violent civil war (that is likely to wear a tribalist mask). The corruption of the 1970s is not counterpoised to a golden age of Belgian colonialism, though invidiously contrasted to urbane London. (He does note that East African slavery both predated and postdates the colonial era, which is true.)

Naipaul was not much of a storyteller and none of the characters with the partial exception of the academic sycophant of the Big Man, Raymond, strikes me as a somewhat developed (hardly rounded) character. I was mildly amused by the burger franchise, imported lock, stock, and barrel from the West (though the beef is local), but did not believe in Yvette (Raymond’s wife who has a protracted affair with Salim) or the other characters, including the other alien (non-African) merchants.

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(Naipual in 2016, photo by Faizul Latif Chowdhury)

I think I’ve read eight Naipaul novels, though none during this millennium, plus The Search for Eldorado and various pieces published in the New York Review of Books. He is loathed by the Afro-Caribbeans I know, but if this was his best, I don’t think he was a great writer. I don’t want to risk rereading his early books set in Trinidad and finding that I no longer like them either,

Bend in the River was a Booker Prize finalist (he’d won for In a Free State in 1971) was on the Guardian’s (Robert McCrum’s) 2015 list of 100 best novels in English, on the Guardian’s best novels of all times, and Naipaul was awarded a Nobel Prize in literature in 2001.

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

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Kill (at least the career of) the messenger: Fair Game

[Rating:4.5/5]

Pros: Watts and Penn

Cons: what really happened to a dedicated agent

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Directed by Doug Liman (“The Bourne Identity”), based on Joseph C. Wilson’s memoir, The Politics of Truth: Inside the Lies that Led to War and Betrayed My Wife’s CIA Identity: A Diplomat’s Memoir, “Fair Game” is particularly timely with the  attacks of the illegitimate president on the professionals of the security agency.

“Fair Game” (2010) focuses on his office’s attempt to discredit former ambassador (to Gabon) Joseph Wilson’s New York Times revelation that the supposed Saddam Hussein Iraq’s purchase of yellowcake enhanced uranium , which was one of the rationales for invading Iraq (included in the 2003 Bush State of the Union address), not only did not happen but was preposterous. Karl Rove and Cheney’s chief-of-staff (and it is impossible to believe with Cheney’s knowledge and approval; indeed Scooter Libby later said that it was Cheney who told him that Plame worked for the CIA) sought to make the story not the administration’s knowing lies but nepotism, specifically, that Wilson was sent by his wife, Valerie Plame, who had been asked about her husband’s connections to Niger officials. Plame did not make the decision to send him to Niger, but the Cheney disinformation machine cast doubt on his challenge to the lie by Bush (and Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, et al.) while avoiding the substance of Wilson’s charge that the Cheney-Bush administration lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in general, and the Niger yellowcake uranimum in particular.

I knew that the Bush administration recklessly exposed that Plame was a CIA covert operative (which is a felony under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act), but the movie showed some of the consequences: one can fairly say the blood of various people (70+) who had been cooperating with her is on the hands of Cheney, Libby, and Dick Armitage (who told Robert Novak that Plame was a CIA agent, which Rove confirmed, hence Novak’s report from “two senior administration officials”). Wilson contradicting Bush administration lies should not have made Plame “fair game,” and destroying her career was done without any consideration of fatally compromising those in the Middle East who could be linked to her. I know that the movie title is a criticism of what was done to Plame and her contacts. “Reckless Mendacity” would be an apt title for the whole run-up to the otherwise catastrophically underplanned conquest of Iraq.

Cheney (via Libby) seeking to make something of the aluminum tubes that the CIA was convinced were not part of a nuclear bomb-making program in Iraq and generally to cherry-pick and leak raw data to justify invading Iraq are also prominent in the movie. (In his testimony to the special prosecutor Cheney claimed not to recall information sought 72 times, a piece of the historical record not posed to him in his current press initiative.)

Having said that everyone knew there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in an Oscar acceptance speech, Penn was a natural to be cast as Wilson and Naomi Watts was convincingly dedicated to her job playing Plame. And David Andrews was convincing as the bullying Libby (Cheney and Bush played themselves; that is, appeared in archival footage).

Alas, the movie ends with Bush commuting Libby’s sentence rather than being jailed along with Cheney for their multiple crimes. (And, during the movie’s credit, the real Plame testifying to a congressional committee appears alongside closing records, showing how much Watts looks like her).

 

©2014, Stephen O. Murray

Colin Farrell in Triage/Shellshock

Rating:4/5]

Pros: Farrell, Lee, Dura, Reilly; Deasy’s cinematography

Cons: second half feels slow

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Colin Farrell (born in Dublin in 1976) has been very good in a succession of movies few people have seen, including “Phone Booth” (2002), “A Home at the End of the World” (2004, the performance that made me a fan of his), “Ask the Dust” (2006), “Triage” (2009), “Ondine” (2009), (IMO, a minority one) “Alexander (2004, and Seven Psychopaths,” (2012). (I have not seen “Cassandra’s Dream”, and don’t remember much about his performance as Captain John Smith in Terrence Malick’s wretched “New World”; thought he was fine in Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report” (2002) and excellent in “In Bruges” (2008), two movies seen by more viewers than these others.)

“Triage,” also released as “Shell Shock” has some problems, though not in the acting of its lead (Farrell) or others. As Elena, the wife of Mark Walsh, the war photojournalist Farrell plays, I think Paz Vega is pretty good. As her octogenarian Spanish psychiatrist grandfather Christopher Lee is outstanding, as is Bronco Dura (No Man’s Land) as a Kurdish field hospital physician (the one doing the triage). Jamie Saves does not make much impression as Mark’s buddy, David, who wants to get home to his very pregnant wife. Though she has, I think, less screen time than David, Kelly Reilly (Sherlock Holmes) delivers a profound and nuanced performance.

Irish cinematographer Samus Deasy (The General) contributes different looks for Dublin and for Kurdistan (shot in Spain, btw). What I am dubious about must be attributed to Bosnian writer-director Danis Tanovic (No Man’s Land), who adapted Scott Anderson’s novel set in 1988 (just before Saddam Hussein’s biggest chemical attack (gassing) of his nominal subjects Iraqi Kurds) March 16, 1988, part of the genocidal policy of Saddam Hussein that was exculpated by the Reagan administration (de facto supporting Hussein against Iran).

The first third (or so) of the movie shows a gung-ho Mark and a very reluctant David accompanying Kurdish rebels against Saddam Hussein’s misrule. With no consideration for the severely wounded, Mark in particular presses in to take gritty photographs, including Dr. Talzani (Djuric) shooting in the head those whom he judges cannot be saved. His triage places blue tags on the hopeless cases, and yellow on the potentially salvageable.

Very familiar with this triage, the wounded Mark is relieved to be yellow-tagged. Back in Dublin, he improves physically and gets worse psychologically (PTSD) despite the love of his wife.

Her question and Diane’s is “What happened to David?” who left the battlefield first. Elena brings in the grandfather whom she considers a Fascist who salvaged various underlings of Francisco Franco (second-hand crimes against humanity). Dr. Morales has a major speech explaining himself and goes to work in breaking through (which means breaking down) Mark. Everyone (including the viewer) eventually learn the tragic answer to that question (by way of a particular concern of Mark’s that Dr. Morales picks up on).

Mark’s agent Amy (Juliet Stevenson) thinks the field hospital/physician execution photos are more interesting and marketable than the combat ones, and that part of the movie seems more powerful to me than the eventual revelation (well played and well photographed as it is). Tanovic had plenty of experience of the war on civilians living in Sarajevo, and is perhaps better at gritty, bitter war movies than at rehabilitation ones? Or is the editing to blame for the slow feel of the second half (plus) of the movie? Or that the payoff doesn’t pay enough? Would it have been better not to hide from the audience what happened to David? Maybe, maybe not.

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The movie did not have a US theatrical release (went straight to video). The DVD has multiple interviews, which are also drawn on for a good making-of feature that runs 20 minutes. The DVD presentation lifts my 3.5 judgment of the movie itself. It is a shame that the excellent acting was not seen by American audiences. Though not a “popcorn movie,” surely there are enough stimuli for adrenaline in it!

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

Interactions of four men deluded about their godhood

[Rating: 4/5]

Pros: analysis of identity maintenance

Cons: “experiment” went on too long, so does its report

“Every man would like to be God, if it were possible; some few find it difficult to admit the impossibility.” —Bertrand Russell, Power

“If it hurts too much, man is wise to turn away from it.” —Joseph, one of the three Christs of Ypsilanti

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I don’t see why Milton Rokeach (1918-88) kept the three paranoid schizophrenics, each of whom believed himself to be Jesus Christ, whom he had brought together in 1959 in the Ypsilanti State (Michigan) Hospital together for 25 months. The experimental cure failed at once, yet Rokeach chronicled the details of their delusions after confronting them with others claiming to the same identity had failed to dislodge their identities, as he expected (hypothesized) it would. There is no reference in his book, The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, first published in 1964, to When Prophecy Fails, which would have led me to expect people to manage to hold onto their beliefs when they have been empirically disconfirmed. There is a mention of Leon Festinger’s book Cognitive Dissonance, but no recognition that falsification of beliefs (predictions of the end of the world by the doomsday cult Festinger infiltrated) leads to fiercer commitment rather than to abandoning them. I can’t remember what, if anything of Festinger’s findings, Rockeach taught of that when I took the introductory Social Psychology course from him in 1970 at Michigan State University.

Rokeach’s 1981 afterword is abashed about his playing god and inflicting pain (though the ability to rationalize away cognitive dissonance is considerable). Having not shaken their beliefs in their divinity by confronting each of them with two others claiming to be Jesus, Rokeach went beyond the pale in concocting letters from characters invented by Rokeach (derived from the delusions of the patients). His manipulations also failed to obliterate their identities, though the youngest of them, Leon, made slight accommodations of his belief system to account for the others (crazy men in a mental hospital). The older (and longer incarcerated) two “defended their delusional system of belief mainly by denial… itself the result of the loss of ego functioning and of the need for consistency.”

The fourth messiah (Rokeach) was sufficiently familiar with Freud to recognize the import of a “slip” saying “the four Christs of Ypsalanti”), he looked back an judged “I really had no right, even in the name of science, to play God and interfere round the clock with their daily lives.”

Though in retrospect he realized that he “had failed to cure the three Christs of their delusions, they had succeeded in curing me of mine—of my godlike delusion that I could change them by omnipotently and omnisciently arranging and rearranging their daily lives with the framework of a ‘total institution.’” Based on his belief of the great efficacy of engineering self-confrontation through a single “experimental session”, I think that Rokeach continued to overestimate his clout in changing attitudes, although I liked him as a teacher (lecturer).

BTW, the large Ypsilanti state hospital was closed in 1991, part of the “deinstitutionalization” (dumping patients on the streets) that Ron Moody discusses in his introduction to the 2011 New York Review Books reprinting of Rokeach’s book.

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

The Go Master

[Rating:3/5]

Pros: cinematography of Wang Yu

Cons: both the history and the game are opaque to most people

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I was impressed by director Tian Zhuangzhuang’s 1996 movie “Blue Kite,” but primarily watched “The Go Master” (Go Seigen, originally the master’s name, played by Wu Qingyuan) because its title character was played by me second-favorite (second to Takeshi Kaneshiro) Taiwanese actor, Chang Chen (who was Chang in “Happy Together”, the Mongol prince, Dark Cloud, in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, Sun Quan in “Red Cliff”, Razor in “The Grand Master” ). I would not have recognized him as Wu Qingyuan, either young or old (he looks exactly the same throughout this movie, except that with age he stops wearing glasses, which is a puzzlement).

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Even with voiceovers from Wu’s diary (also shown in Chinese characters and English subtitles), the viewer has no idea what Wu thinks or feels about anything, including the physical for the draft into the Imperial Japanese Army, which was at war with his native China. Wu was very Japanized even before the Japanese invasion of China and his “sport” is one venerated in Japan.

Wu survives tuberculosis, the fire-bombing of Tokyo, food shortages, and realizing he is following a false god (a megalomaniacal prophetess of a Buddhist sect, Jikou Son (Minami Kaho) without showing any emotion whatsoever. He is good at bowing and at sitting motionless on his legs (something few Japanese, let alone Taiwanese now can do).

The jumps in time and lack of character development (/motivation) make the movie pretty confusing (dare I say “evidence narrative incompetence”?), but it definitely looks great (like Wong Kar-Wai’s “Grand Master” with even less action). Credit cinematographer Wang Yu (Suzhou River, 24 City). The movie was mostly shot in Japan (specifically, Odawara in the Kanagawa Prefecture in the southeast of Honshu, the target of US bombers August 15, 1945) and the dialogue is mostly in Japanese.

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

Marcia Gay Harden as Lear (and more): If I Were You

Pros: Harden is great

Cons: a bit too long with foils not up to Harden’s fury or pain

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I’m a major fan of Marcia Gay Harden (born in La Jolla, CA in 1959, won a best supporting actress Oscar for the 2000 “Pollock” playing Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock’s wife)), and have just enjoyed her turn as the news network’s lead legal counsel on the second season of “The Newsroom” (which I thought was better than the first with less focus on the romantic entanglements of the younger staff members than on the first). In “If I Were You” (2012), written and directed by Canadian Joan Carr-Wiggin (“A Previous Engagement.’’), I thought she was very entertaining as the wife (Madelyn) whose husband, Paul (Joseph Kell) is cheating on her with a younger woman, a wannabe actress named Lucy (Leonor Watling) whom Madelyn keeps from killing herself.

The movie has its screwball elements, but is not really a comedy. Madelyn gets cast in an offbeat, semi-professional production of “King Lear” with her new pal/advisee Lucy playing the Fool. She went along with Lucy to an open-call audition and the director Rainer (Michael Therriault) thinks that Madelyn’s ranting on her cellphone behind him is a bid to be cast in the title role. It looks like Harden would make an interesting Lear, quite up to Shakespeare’s lines if still a bit young for the part

Madelyn hits the bottle hard, which I don’t find funny. I don’t think the liaison with a stranger (Aidan Quinn) encountered in the nursing home where both he and Madelyn are visiting dying Alzheimer-plagued parents is intended to be funny (romantic, sí; charming, sí!) Madelyn has another suitor a married co-worker  (Gary Piquer).

IMHO Kell is the weakest link, deserving of neither Madelyn or Lucy. And I think the 115-minute running length is a bit longer than it needs to be, but Harden is great and the movie deserves a larger audience than it had with barely a US theatrical release.

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

“Echo’s bones were turned to stone”

Pros: some wordplay

Cons: plot, etc.

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In 1933 Samuel Beckett (1906-89) wrote an additional (13,500-word) story for his 1934 collection of short fictions, More Kicks than Pricks. though he had killed off his alter ego and the protagonist/observer of the other stories, the Dublin slacker Belacqua Shuah (lifted from Dante’s Purgatorio Canto IV) in “Yellow,” the penultimate story of More Kicks than Pricks.

Eighty years later the 59-page piece was published by Grove Press “Echo’s Bones.” It runs only slightly more pages than that of apparatus, which includes 57 pages of annotations by Mark Nixon and Beckett’s correspondence with the book’s Chatto & Windus editor, Charles Prentice, who judged the story/novella a “nightmare” and predicted that any readers would “shudder and be puzzled and confused.” Prentice said it gave him “the jim-jams.”

Like Gaul, “Echo’s Bones” is comprised of three parts. In the first Belacqua is reborn and cavorts with a prostitute, Miss Zaborovna Privet.. Next he meets Haemo Lord Gall of Wormwood, a giant whose aids in impregnating his giantess wife the giant seeks from Belacqua. (Without male issue, Wormwood would be inherited by the villainous Baron Extravas.)

In the final part, Belacqua watches his own grave being robbed in a “long night of knock-about”. “Echo’s Bones” goes nowhere, the three parts failing to cohere, let alone lead from one step to another. Dwight Garner in the Irish Times likened the story to an “anthology of death rattles” (an apt characterization of “Endgame” and “Krapp’s Last Tape”). The novella now a sort-of stand-alone book is literally “snotty.”

Echo, post-Narcissus, had a voice as well as bones. The voices in Beckett (here as elsewhere) are mostly male one.

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

Having quickly bogged down trying to reread Molloy, I have bumped Beckett down to the maybe clump in my second-guessing Nobel Prizes for literature.