Monthly Archives: October 2020

My very own little socially distanced Spanish Film Festival #1

I live in Melbourne, and we have been locked down over two separate periods. The first lockdown from about 24 March lasted until 12 May. The second, much more onerous one started on 9 July and is still in force in October. These are the things I miss most:

  • Seeing my children and grandchildren (although for the last fortnight we’ve been able to see them outside as long as there are only 5 of us, and within 5 km of home).
  • Being able to catch up with friends at a cafe with good coffee in a real cup and food on a china plate (Why, oh why, didn’t I do more of this in the interregnum between the two lockdowns?)
  • Going to the cinema (they opened briefly on a reduced scale, then shut again).

Numbers 1 and 2 I will jump at, as soon I have the chance, but I don’t know when I’ll feel confident to return to the cinema again. The idea of sitting in the dark, someone either side of me, and people coughing and sniffing as they inevitably do, really creeps me out.

I always look forward to the Spanish Film Festival and the Latin American Film Festival, which screen at the nearby Westgarth Palace Cinema. Neither festival occurred this year, but I’ve been enjoying the Instituto Cervantes Festival Pelikula 2020 which is being screened online for free! The films are only available in Australia, Phillipines and Thailand for free, and they only screen for 24 hours. They are subtitled in English – unfortunately, not in Spanish because I like the challenge of reading Spanish subtitles. The festival runs between 3 and 11 October so there are still a couple of days and films left.

Here’s what I’ve seen so far:

  1. The Reconquest. Actually, I don’t think that this was part of the Pelikula festival, but it was time limited. Who knows how I got to know of it. It’s about two 30-somethings who keep the promise that they made as fifteen-year olds to meet up in 15 years time. Beautifully filmed but so very s-l-o-w. I’m sure that I aged 15 years watching it.

2. La Filla de Algú. Eli is a lawyer working in the family law firm. On the morning when she and her father are about to act in an important case, her father disappears. Despite being 7 months pregnant, she goes off looking for him. She is secretive and evasive – I wouldn’t want her as my lawyer. The ending was very abrupt and indeterminate.

3. Jaulas .(i.e. ‘Cages’) I really enjoyed this film. Set in an Andalusian shanty-town, a young girl, her mother and her disabled uncle escape their violent father/husband. The family keeps caged birds, and like the birds, they are all trapped. The ending was a little ambiguous (what is it with all these ambiguous endings?) but I’m going with a positive plot resolution rather than a more chilling one.

I’ve booked for another four films, so that will keep me busy. If you’re interested in joining in, here is the link:

https://www.pelikula.es/en/seccion-oficial.html

They are all subtitled in English.

‘The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree’ by Shokoofeh Azar

2017, 268 p. Translated by ‘Adrien Kijek’

I knew that this book had been shortlisted for both the Stella Prize for Australian women’s writing, and also for the Booker International. It has been translated into English by a translator whose pseudonym appears only in the bibliographic details at the front of the book. Having only recently become sensitized to the nuances of translation by learning another language myself, at first I felt a frisson of annoyance that the translator was so invisible. However, I learn from a review of the Europa edition of the book, where the translator is designated ‘anonymous’, this was at their request and for reasons of safety. The fear and repression felt by the translator pervades the book too, where the political and personal grind remorselessly against each other. The magical realism with which the book is imbued is a relief, both in terms of self-protection for the characters and for us as readers.

Roza, the mother of three children Sohrab, Beeta and Bahar climbed the tallest tree in the grove, a greengage plum tree, and it was there that she received enlightenment at exactly 2.35 p.m. on August 18, 1988, the very moment that her son Sohrab was hanged under the instructions of the Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini. The family had fled Tehran in the wake of the Iranian Revolution in 1979, but the unrest followed them to the small village of Razan as well. Not that her daughter Bahar physically followed them to the remote village: she had been killed during 1979 and as our narrator, is now a ghost, still present to her family, but dead.

The book combines historical detail – the mandate of wearing headcoverings, the appearance of men bristling with guns in the back of utilities, the disappearances and hangings – alongside a world of dragonflies, riotous growth of plants, jinns and mermaids. It’s a rather discombobulating book to read, with frequent time shifts and a permeable edge between the traditional and historical, and between the spirit and political worlds. The men with guns may have come, with their fundamentalist theology, but the traditional Persian beliefs in the spirit world underlie outward compliance and inward resistance. So too does the traditional way of story-telling, with a long story-within-a story that wreathes without a full-stop for ten pages.

This is also a family story, as each member responds in their own different way to the challenge of living through traumatic times. Roza, after her three-day stay in the greengage tree, leaves her diminished family; Beeta turns into a mermaid; her father Hushang immerses himself in his books before returning to his family home in Tehran, where the family has sequestered itself. His brother Khosro turns to mysticism, as a way of inuring himself from changes that he does not support. And Bahar moves among them restlessly, with love and impotent compassion, waiting for them to join her.

This is not an easy book to read, especially if you dislike magic realism. For myself, I see it playing a dual role in this book: as a way of laying claim to a way of viewing the world, but also as a form of resistance. Given that this book was trumped in the Booker International by the bleak and shrivelling The Discomfort of Evening, there is much more to hold on to in this book, which would have been a more worthy winner, in my view.

My rating: 8.5/10

Read because: Shortlisting on Stella and Booker International prizes

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

‘The End of Certainty: Scott Morrison and Pandemic Politics’ by Katharine Murphy QE 79

2020, 98 p

Journalism has long been described as the first draft of history and that’s certainly the case with Katharine Murphy’s latest Quarterly Essay The End of Certainty: Scott Morrison and Pandemic Politics. The arrangements for the Quarterly Essays are usually locked in a year ahead of time, and Katharine Murphy thought at first that she would be writing a profile of Australia’s unexpected Prime Minister, Scott Morrison. But in this Year of Madness, events overtook her and instead of writing an essay based solely on his personality, she interweaves it with a chronology of the unfolding of the COVID pandemic and the politics it has engendered.

No matter where she stopped this essay, things would have continued to change. As it is, her essay starts with her interview with Scott Morrison during “some of the last hours in which Morrison hoped the second wave in Victoria could be avoided”. Events have moved on since then, and so too the civility that marked the for-public-consumption ‘unity’ of Morrison’s National Cabinet of Prime Minister and Premiers, which has sidelined Parliament, the Opposition and the usual cabinet processes. The gloves are off now. Since she wrote this essay, Victoria’s second wave has quite rightly come in for criticism, but Morrison is now cheerleader for opening borders and patting the head of Liberal-run NSW, suggesting that deep down Morrison really is Prime Minister for New South Wales. She doesn’t mention the COVID Commission Advisory Board, headed by none other than resources businessman Nev Power, and its championing of a gas-led recovery.

If her aim was to paint a portrait of Scott Morrison, even she would admit that she has not been particularly successful. The emphasis on the pandemic has pushed any further consideration of Morrison’s character offstage. I have learned nothing about his education, his life before politics, or his position in the party. His route to the Prime Ministership is left unexamined. Apart from his Pentecostal faith, which is off-limits for reporters, the Morrison she portrays is a pragmatic and transactional shape shifter. He learned from his much-criticized inertia with the bushfires, where he couldn’t actually do anything. He’s certainly into doing now, but curiously absent when things go wrong.

So much has changed for us in the last nine months that it’s hard to keep track of the trajectory, and her tracing through of the early response to news of Wuhan is valuable as history. But her essay ends, as the title suggests, in an uncertain way. Pragmatism, in the absence of anything else, is amorphous.

Murphy doesn’t say this, but I suspect that Morrison is more ideological than she suggests, and I think that we will see it in the budget that awaits us. But for that, and for any real sense of how this pandemic has changed us, we will just have to wait.

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: my Quarterly Essay subscription.

I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Six degrees of separation: From ‘The Turn of the Screw’ to….

It’s the first Saturday of the month, and so it’s Six Degrees of Separation day. The rules of the meme are here. In October the starting book is Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw which I confess to not having read. But I gather that it’s about a governess – and I have read about governesses, so off I go!

The first governess I thought of was Caroline Newcomb, who shifted across from Hobart to Port Phillip in 1836 to act as governess for the (in)famous John Batman’s family in the very early days of Melbourne’s settlement. She ended up in Geelong, where she met Annie Drysdale, and together the two women formed a partnership to run sheep on the the 10,000 acre Boronggoop property on the Barwon River as women squatters – certainly a novelty at that time. Their lives are described in Miss D. and Miss N. where Bev Roberts edits and annotates Anne Drysdale’s diaries.

Sometimes I’m a bit of a purist with my historical fiction, but I love it when a novelist does the research then subverts it completely. This is the case with Peter Mews’ Bright Planet, which takes its name from a real ship that often appeared in the Port Phillip Shipping News columns. It’s set in a Melbourne known as Bareheep in the early 1840s, complete with a mixture of historic and fictional characters, and like Robyn Annear’s Bearbrass , it’s a real hoot.

Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries uses astrological principles as an organizing structure for her sprawling (and too long, in my opinion) book about the New Zealand gold rush in Hokitika. It’s a bit like a great big Victorian door-stopper of a book with myriad characters. I thought that it was technically clever, but just too long-winded.

Think New Zealand, and think Janet Frame. Owls Do Cry was her first novel, a thinly disguised autobiography, and it is often considered to be New Zealand’s first modernist novel. It’s a startlingly original book, dealing with mental illness and it still packs a punch after more than 60 years.

Speaking of owls, I Heard the Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven is a quiet, meditative book about a young priest who, unknown to him, has only a few years left to live. He is sent to minister to a small Indian village, where Christianity, commercialism and the outside world are encroaching on the traditional myths and practices that the villagers share with him. It’s a beautifully written book, but a bit ponderous.

Not at all ponderous is Marie Munkara’s Every Secret Thing. It is a series of tales set around an Aboriginal mission in far northern Australia with the Mission mob, the Catholic clergy, trying to convert the Bush mob who lived just outside the Mission. The Bush mob move back and forth between the arbitrary strictures and efforts of the clergy and their own more grounded life outside. They are clear-eyed about the hypocrisy and smallness of these white priests and nuns, but they are also painfully aware of the degree of control that the mission has over their lives. It is imbued with a quick, cutting, deft wit that overlays anger and sorrow.

And so that brings me to the end of my chain. It seems that with the exception of one book, I’ve stayed mainly in the Southern Hemisphere this time!

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 17-24 September

Heather Cox Richardson . In her History and Politics Chat of 15 September, she picks up on the claim that mass hysterectomies were being performed on women in ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement_ hospitals without informed consent. She is not absolutely convinced, given that it is just part of a much longer complaint about the COVID response in ICE facilities, and it did not come through established whistleblower channels. Nonetheless, she does go on to talk about the eugenics movement in America, and the use of forced sterilization among indigenous and disabled settings. After answering some other questions, she also talks about why she is so concerned about ICE agents and other forces controlled by the Dept. of Homeland Security

Then on 24 September, with RBG’s death, the hypocrisy of the Republican Party, and Trump’s ambivalence about accepting the result of the election, she tries to soothe things down a bit. She warns not to accept whatever result is announced on Election Night, because it will not be the final result. She also advises that we think about how we, individually, will act on principle and non-violently after the election. She then talks about the Supreme Court and the threats to American democracy.

And in the Thursday History of the Republican Party on 27th August Part 13, she picks up again on Ronald Reagan, who racked up debt, prompted the Great Divergence in wealth between the rich and poor, and drew on the cowboy, individualistic motif as imagery, especially with the Iran/Contra affair- whoever thought THAT was a good idea? (She explains it well). George H. W. Bush, who was really more of a traditional New Deal type of Republican was forced to court the Movement Conservatives to be elected, even promising ‘Read my lips, no new taxes’ (a cowboy trope again).

The Real Story (BBC) What everyone wants to know: When Will We Get a COVID-19 Vaccine? An epidemiologist, the chief executive of the Wellcome Trust and the Indian government’s Department of Biotechnology, the Senior Vice President responsible for Research & Development at Inovio Pharmaceuticals in San Diego, California, and a familiar voice, Chris Smith, Consultant virologist and lecturer at the University of Cambridge and presenter of ‘The Naked Scientists’ podcast

The History Hour (BBC) Prohibition in India. How Indian women in the 1990s campaigned to stop the sale of alcohol in the state of Andhra Pradesh to protect women from domestic violence and safeguard family finances. The history of America’s healthcare system, how the UN was eventually persuaded to apologise for the 2010 cholera outbreak in Haiti and the horror of being caught up in one of the most notorious hi-jackings of the 1970s, plus the birth of Reddit, one the world’s most successful websites.

Start the Week (BBC) ‘The Radical Agenda’ has Rachel Holmes, the author of a recent biography of Sylvia Pankhurst, Owen Jones who has recently published a book about the Corbyn election and why it went so wrong, and Conservative columnist Danny Finkelstein (although he says that he argues for ‘moderation’, not ‘conservatism).

America if you’re listening (ABC) One of the things we have to grudgingly admit is that Trump hasn’t launched America into a war yet, even though North Korea and Iran have both looked pretty dicey. How close did Trump get to nuclear war looks at the influence of John Bolton whose recent book might have provided comfort for anti-Trumpers, but Bolton himself always was a war-mongering official.

Science Friction (ABC) has a three part series Click-Sick about medical misinformation on the internet. Part 1 Why Sharing isn’t always Caring looks at the family friction that can arise when some members of the family trawl dodgy medical pages. A bit ho-hum.

In Our Time (BBC) Oh good, new episodes! I don’t really know much classical history at all, so I was interested in this podcast about Pericles. He was seen as a bit of a class traitor at the time, as he came from one of the best families, but really promoted democracy. He was elected fifteen times, gave a famous speech at our version of Anzac Day, and ended up dying of the plague, which broke out under his watch.