Thursday, January 31, 2013

Life imitating art imitating life?

Looking back at the first month of the year, I am once again surprised by the way real life can echo one's reading matter. Or is it the other way round? Anyway, the hostage crisis in the Algerian desert reminded me, in an uncanny way, of a book I had read earlier in the month.

Ann Patchett's novel Bel Canto, which won the Orange Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction in 2002, tells the story of a huge number of people from many different nationalities (including a few Japanese, American and French citizens) being taken hostage by members of a terrorist organisation in an unnamed Third World country. More or less what happened at the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria on January 16. In the novel nearly all the indigenous hostages are freed almost immediately for political or practical reasons, but a few dozen important foreigners are kept for negotiation purposes. Much the same happened in Algeria this month.

In fact, the only fundamentally important difference between fiction and real life was that the fictional hostage drama was drawn out over several months before the authorities sent in their soldiers with sophisticated weapons, while in real life the Algerian government sent in the big guns on the second day. In both cases the outcome was violent and bloody, with most of the captors and some of the captives killed. But the novel's prolonged period of detention made it possible for interesting relationships and even love affairs to develop, not only between captives but even between captives and captors. In other words the time frame made the novel possible. Ann Patchett started out writing what seemed like a political thriller and managed to turn it into quite a moving love story - with a surprising epilogue which won't be divulged here.

It is too early to know if the drama in the Algerian desert will have romantic consequences in the lives of any of the survivors, but I would guess probably not. Life is life, after all, and fiction is fiction. Well, actually the borders are not always that clear, as most fiction readers should know. While the Algerian drama was being played out, I kept wondering about the coincidences in the novel I had just finished reading and ended up doing a little research about Bel Canto. The title, by the way, refers to an American opera singer who is the only woman among the last group of foreign hostages. (At In Amenas there was also only one woman, a French nurse, among the surviving foreign hostages.) If you love opera, you'll probably wallow in the luscious descriptions of the power of the human voice. If you don't, the story might actually tempt you to try listening to a few arias. Be warned.

But what I learned about Bel Canto, while obsessively watching TV news reports on the Algerian event, is that Patchett had loosely based her story on another real-life news event. In December 1996 more than 600 people were taken hostage during a party at the Lima residence of the Japanese ambassador in Peru. The Lima hostage crisis, like Patchett's fictional one, lasted several months, until April 1997. In my own defense I should add that I spent those four months in a rented cottage in a small French village where I knew nobody, without radio, TV or even a telephone, otherwise the story in the novel would surely have rung some bells when I started reading it.

There wasn't any opera involved in the Lima crisis, though. The operatic motive was Patchett's own invention, and a good one too, adding another layer to what could have been a straight-forward suspense story. Unfortunately there seems not to have been any opera singers or singing involved in this month's Algerian hostage crisis either. Unfortunately life doesn't mirror art; it simply imitates little bits and pieces of it -  and sometimes rather poorly too.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Fifty shades of holy crap

Holy crap! I promise you I did not post this picture upside-down intentionally. But now that it's done, I see that it suits the mood of this piece perfectly. This is not my usual kind of blog post, so why should it have the usual kind of picture? 

I prefer to write about books I love rather than books I don't, simply because there are so many good books I want more people to read - and so many bad books I wished less people were reading. Bad books don't need blogs to help them sell, do they? 

But every once in a while a bad little book comes along that just won't be ignored. Actually three bad little books in this case, and sorry if that sounds too much like the three little piglets in the fairy tale, but the whole publishing phenomenon of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy has become something of a fairy tale. At least for the author, EL James, who was utterly unknown barely a year ago and has now sold tens of millions of books in dozens of countries. And she achieved all this with a saucy fairy tale about a virginal student princess named Anastasia who is kissed (and spanked and flogged and beaten) into sexual awakening by a powerful prince of the business world named Christian Grey.

Good for Ms James, I should say. Anyone who knows me would tell you I'm all for transforming fairy tales into more transgressive genres. My biggest problem with Fifty Shades of Grey, though, is that it's all pseudo-transgression, with endless talk about sadomasochistic practices leading to very little action on that front. Most of the erotic action is of the so-called 'normal' kind - that is if you find it normal for a very recently 'deflowered' girl to have mind-blowing orgasms at the drop of a hat while maintaining a constant dialogue with her 'inner goddess'. The worst that can be said of the sex scenes is that they tend to be described with too many unoriginal adjectives and far too many exclamation marks.

As one reviewer wrote, 'suffering through 500 pages of this heroine's inner dialogue was torturous, and not in the intended, sexy kind of way'.

Basically this is M&B with S&M - old-fashioned Mills and Boons spiced up with a bit of Sadism and Masochism - boosting all the classic ingredients of those romances: innocent heroine meets fatally attractive/powerful/rich/brilliant hero (in the case of the incredible Christian Grey, all of these adjectives apply) with a dark and difficult past; he saves her life (repeatedly, throughout the trilogy, in the case of the incredible Christian Grey) while she saves his soul; and love conquers all. You don't have to read all three books to know that Anastasia and Christian will end up getting decently married and living happily ever after. While still enjoying kinky sex, of course, just to make sure all readers get the point that nothing beats the pleasures of the conjugal bed. Or floor. Or whatever.  

OK, enough already, before I start sounding like a cynical and sexually frustrated wife. I've heard that the trilogy has added spice to the boring sex lives of many married couples, for which Ms James also deserves praise. As for me, I prefer novels that are well-written, with believable characters and situations, and sex-scenes without inner goddesses interfering all the time. And whatever else Fifty Shades of Grey is, well-written it is not. 

'Clunky prose', some reviewers call it, but clunky doesn't cover it. Cringe-inducing is more like it. Believe it or not, but this erotic heroine's favourite exclamation - and boy, does she love exclaiming! - is 'Holy cow!'. When she's feeling more daring, she uses 'Holy crap!'. When she loses it completely, she shouts 'Holy shit!' and occasionally even 'Holy fuck!'. I mean, really. 

So, good for Ms James and all her millions of female readers who dream of being dominated in bed or in life, but count me out. I certainly won't be reading the rest of the trilogy. Sometimes, as far as books and sex go, once is indeed enough.   

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Betting on books

If I was the gambling type, I might have made a quick buck this month with some clever literary bets. Two of my favourite novels of the past year have just been crowned with two major literary prizes. And I'm not saying this with the wisdom of hindsight; I've got my blog to prove it!

In May I posted a piece on an Afrikaans novel which impressed me so much that I simply had to share my enthusiasm with as many people as possible, even though this blog usually deals only with English books: And last week my enthusiasm was richly rewarded when Sonja Loots's Sirkusboere won the South African M-Net Prize. Well done, Ms Loots.

Even bigger and better is the Man Booker Prize which was won by Hilary Mantel - once again! - for Bring up the Bodies, about which I raved in my previous post: With this achievement Mantel becomes the first woman to win two 'Bookers' and the first author to be crowned for a novel (Wolf Hall) as well as its sequel. Brava to the marvellous Mantel.

But all this trumpet blowing is actually just a way of easing into a rather embarrassing confession. Because when it comes to the biggest literary prize of all, also announced this month, I've bombed completely. To my shame I've never read anything written by the Chinese winner of the Nobel Prize,  Mo Yan. To be perfectly honest, I didn't even know his name until last week. Although if I'd been the gambling type, I would have noticed his name on the Ladbrokes list of possible winners, with the rather high odds of 8 to 1.

Although not as high as the odds against Bob Dylan (12/1), whom I would have bet on if I was into betting. Not because I believed that he would win, but because I would have really loved it if an old rock 'n roll poet won this most respectable of all prizes. So if I had to bet on the Nobel Prize, I would certainly have lost whatever I might have made with the M-Net and the Man Booker.

Thank heavens I'm not the gambling type, after all.