Lucy Popescu

freedom to write, review, travel…

Book Review – Cove

Posted by lucypopescu on December 4, 2016

coveStories of individuals pitted against the cruel forces of nature have a broad and enduring appeal, from Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. When executed well, survival narratives take hold of your imagination and remain with you. It is this rich seam that Welsh novelist Cynan Jones mines in his novella Cove.

In a short prologue — a dreamlike sequence narrated in the second person — a woman waits on a shore. Then the focus shifts to a man, adrift at sea, having been struck by lightning. As well as being paralysed in one arm, he has lost his mental moorings and is unsure of who he is or why he is marooned in a fragile kayak covered in a thin veil of ash.

As Jones tracks back and forth in time in his characteristically spare prose, we learn that the man had come to sea to scatter his father’s ashes and to catch some fish for lunch. Jones’ economy of language means that his imagery, his choice of metaphors and similes, has to hit the nail every time. It is some measure of his skill as a writer that they invariably do. Consider the following descriptions of the man’s shattered memory: at first, he has only “a sense of himself, a fly trapped the wrong side of glass”. When he catches sight of his name on an address label “it was like looking into an empty cup”. He remembers the beginning of his journey and drifting out to sea, but “the time in between was gone. Like a cigarette burn in a map.”

Jones’ terse lyricism, together with his repetition of resonant images and motifs, encourage the reader to fill in the gaps as slivers of the man’s memory return: he finds a wren’s feather inside his dead mobile phone and “the sense of her came back”. He imagines her, “the bell of her stomach”, waiting for him on the beach. He knows they each have a feather. This slow, partial remembering serves as a reawakening — it succours the man and gives him the will to live: “The idea of her, whoever she might be, seemed to grow into a point on the horizon he could aim for. He believed he would know more as he neared her.”

The odds are nevertheless stacked against Jones’ protagonist: he is suffering from overexposure, he has lost his paddles, he is injured and in pain, one arm is useless and he’s low on water. As he drifts, hopelessly, at the mercy of the sea and the weather, he becomes acutely aware of nature’s gentler side — the butterfly that alights on the boat, the sunfish staring him in the eye, the dolphins playing around his kayak. These precious reminders of the here and now strengthen his resolve to survive.

Jones strips the story down to its elemental core and much of it reads like a prose poem. His vivid descriptions allow us to feel the man’s physical discomfort and flagging spirit. Cove is a slighter work than Jones’ previous novel, The Dig, but explores similar themes. Just as The Dig was about the rhythms of rural life, Cove is about the dangerous, unknowable rhythms of the sea. Both are about devastation — one emotional, the other physical — and both examine love, loss, memory and the will to live. Cove is a haunting meditation on trauma and human fragility.

 

Originally published by FT.com

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Speed reading – books about migration

Posted by lucypopescu on November 26, 2016

 

Migrant Women's voicesMigrant Women’s Voices pays tribute to the numerous female migrants who contributed to the reconstruction effort post World War II and those who joined the British workforce in the following decades. Based on the oral histories of seventy-four migrant women (collected between 1992 and 2012) Linda McDowell charts how Britain was transformed into a multi-cultural society. The testimonies demonstrate “the huge commitment made to Britain, to its economy and to its population by ‘ordinary’ women… who made the decision to move across national borders and make a life elsewhere.”

In Refugee Tales, poets and novelists, including Ali Smith, Patience Agbabi and Marina Lewycka, retell the stories of refugees who have experienced Britain’s appalling policy of indefinite immigration detention. Inspired by Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, these accounts are told from the perspectives of a lawyer, unaccompanied minor and a deportee, among others. This impressive anthology illustrates the limbo often endured by those seeking a safe sanctuary. British citizens enjoy the basic human right not to be detained without charge for more than 14 days, while asylum seekers can be detained for years before being granted leave to remain.the-immigrant-handbook

Caroline Smith’s haunting poetry collection is inspired by her experiences as an asylum caseworker for a London MP. Many of her characters’ fates are uncertain: Every week for seven years Dr Khan has walked to Hounslow’s immigration reporting centre. Arjan Mehta has spent seventeen years phoning the Home Office waiting for a response to his application:

 

He is now forty.

The sealed-up phone box

long out of service,

the black cradle

within its sepulchre,

silent as an obsidian urn.

 

Originally published by The Tablet

 

 

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Dangerous Women – Aslı Erdoğan

Posted by lucypopescu on November 26, 2016

asli-erdoganOn 15 November, to mark the Day of the Imprisoned Writer, PEN centres around the world protested the detention of Aslı Erdoğan, a Turkish novelist and journalist considered a ‘dangerous woman’ by the state for her journalistic activities. Aslı, 49, is a columnist and on the advisory board of the pro-Kurdish opposition daily Özgür Gündem, shut down under the state of emergency imposed after the failed military coup of 15 July 2016. Aslı was arrested at her home in Istanbul, on 17 August 2016 together with twenty other journalists and employees from the paper.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is increasingly intolerant of political opposition, public protest, and critical media. Restrictive laws are regularly used to arrest and prosecute journalists, while media groups who criticise the government are fined.  Since the coup attempt, the silencing of critical voices has reached epic proportions. The government declared a three-month state of emergency (which has been extended for a further 90 days) and, according to PEN’s last count on 24 October 2016, 135 journalists had been charged and were in pre-trial detention; at least eight were detained without charge and others were in police custody under investigation…

To read more please visit http://dangerouswomenproject.org/2016/11/07/3597/

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Book Review – Crossings

Posted by lucypopescu on November 26, 2016

 

CrossingsNick Murray’s impressive collection of essays is part travelogue and part meditation on other, metaphysical borders he has experienced. Murray has traversed various continents, countries and counties. Borders, he muses early on, “are not attractive places. They want to instruct you, as forcefully as they can, about their importance, about what they signify, so everything about them is designed to underscore that meaning…” On crossing the frontier from North Africa to the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, he notes how roughly the Spanish policemen treat the Moroccans: “I have seen farmers deal this way with recalcitrant sheep.” In ‘The Toxicity of Borders’, he argues against Europe’s current “war” with migration, pointing out how the movement of people “enriches the collective experience, it is a prophylactic against insularity, complacency ignorance.”

Observing with humour some of the class boundaries that remain entrenched in Britain today, Murray recalls a talk he gave at Eton and how he made the unforgivable faux pas of asking for a speaker’s fee: “In this place, where only the sons of Croesus can afford to lodge, payment is plainly unheard of and to request it an awful solecism.”

In ‘The Last Frontier’, Murray poignantly describes the limbo between life and death endured by an unnamed elderly patient in a care home: “cut off from our world, unable to speak or acknowledge her children and friends, in the fathomless, silent place granted to her by a paralyzing body dementia…Silently I ask myself: will no one come to lift the barrier and let her through?”

Murray combines philosophical reflections, the musings of other writers – from Voltaire to Bruce Chatwin – and personal vignettes to terrific effect. In the shorter, second section of Crossings, Murray looks back at the twenty-five years he has lived in the Welsh Marches and reflects on the history of its border with England. In contrast to the negative feelings for border posts in his opening pages, he concludes that he is “divided, not an easy belonger, preferring the fugitive margins of border country to the confident claim to a single, definite patch of turf in the centre of things.”

Originally published in The Tablet

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Dangerous Women – Anna Politkovskaya

Posted by lucypopescu on November 26, 2016

anna_politkovskayaOn 7 October 2006, award-winning Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead outside her Moscow apartment. She was deemed a dangerous woman by many for her investigative work and paid for it with her life. Her body was found slumped in the lift of her apartment block, together with a gun and evidence of four bullets. Her murder had all the hall marks of a contract killing, down to the kontrolnyi vystrel – the control shot, a final bullet into the head at close range – and there is little doubt that her death was in retribution for her fearless reporting, particularly on human rights abuses in Chechnya.

Born in 1958 in New York, Politkovskaya studied journalism at Moscow State University. She worked on the Soviet newspaper Izvestiya for over ten years, before joining Novaya Gazeta in 1999, one of the few newspapers to be openly critical of the Kremlin, its policies in Chechnya, and corruption in the armed forces. She worked as special correspondent for the Moscow newspaper and wrote extensively about Chechnya and human rights abuses in Russia. Her books, translated into English, include A Dirty War: A Russian Reporter in Chechnya(2001), Putin’s Russia (2004) and A Russian Diary, published posthumously in 2008.  At the time of her death, she was working on an article about torture in Chechnya that implicated Ramzan Kadyrov, then the Chechen Prime Minister appointed by President Putin. After her murder, rumours began to circulate that Kadyrov himself was responsible and had ordered the contract killing to coincide with Putin’s birthday.

Politkovskaya was recognised worldwide for her championing of human rights, but her reporting had brought her enemies from various quarters. In the early noughties I was working as Director of English PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee and we regularly held campaigns protesting against the intimidation of this courageous journalist. In 2001 Politkovskaya was forced to flee to Vienna, after receiving death threats from a military officer accused of committing atrocities against civilians in Chechnya. She acted as a mediator in the Nord-Ost theatre siege in Moscow in 2002.  Two years later, we learned that Politkovskaya had fallen seriously ill as she attempted to fly to Beslan to cover the hostage crisis there. After drinking tea on the flight to the region, she lost consciousness and was hospitalized, but the suspected toxin was never identified; the results of her blood tests were reportedly destroyed. This led to speculation that she had been deliberately poisoned to stop her from reporting on the siege. Politkovskaya was shaken by this, but continued to write, despite the death threats. One of her enemies was undoubtedly the Chechen leader Kadyrov who, she claimed, had vowed to kill her…

To read more visit http://dangerouswomenproject.org/2016/10/26/anna-politkovskaya/

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Film Review – Little Men

Posted by lucypopescu on September 25, 2016

imgresThe final film in a trilogy focusing on New York City, Ira Sachs’ lates feature, Little Men (2016), starring Jennifer Ehle and Greg Kinnear, follows the rites of passage of two thirteen-year-old boys Jake (Theo Taplitz) and Tony (Michael Barbieri). Jake is a sensitive loner whose artistic talents are derided by his school teacher and initially ignored by his parents. By contrast, Tony, an aspiring actor, is confident, well-liked, and effortlessly connects with both adults and kids his own age.

They meet after Jake’s grandfather, Max, dies. Jake’s parents, Brain (Kinnear) and Kathy (Ehle), inherit Max’s Brooklyn apartment and the store below. This is rented by Tony’s Chilean mother Leonor (Paulina Garcia), a seamstress who sells handmade clothes. Brian is an actor and not having had a properly paid job for some time, lives off his wife’s earnings as a psychotherapist. He comes under pressure from his sister (Talia Balsam) to substantially increase the rent on the store with disastrous implications for Tony’s mum. As Leonor is quick to point out, Max had been a friend, was supportive of her work and wanted her to stay after his death. She’s also not above reminding Brian that he rarely visited his father and so is unaware of the attachment they formed in his final years.

Meanwhile, Tony has taken the awkward Jake under his wing and gets him to join the local drama group. As the adults’ relationship deteriorates, their friendship blossoms. Tony gives Jake the encouragement he lacks from his parents and suggests that they both join the same high school specialising in the arts. They watch video-games together and share their aspirations. When the adults’ tensions becomes apparent they decide to give them the silent treatment. But their friendship is sorely tested when Jake’s parents begin eviction proceedings against Tony’s mother.

Little Men is a tender portrait of two boys on the cusp of adulthood. Part of the film’s power resides in the emotional minutiae captured by the camera: Jake’s flicker of pain when he discovers his father has thrown out many of his drawings in the move from Manhattan to Brooklyn; Tony’s fleeting misapprehension as he attempts to comfort his mother. Sachs is also strong on the psychological complexity of familial relations. One of the most moving moments in the film comes when Jake breaks his silence with his father after seeing him perform in Chekhov’s The Seagull. In floods of tears he tells him how much they had admired his performance in the desperate hope that it might soften his hardline stance towards Leonor.

Barbieri and Taplitz give stunning performances, Ehle and Kinnear make convincing New Yorkers, and Sachs proves that extraordinary films can be made about ordinary lives. The eponymous little men are given a harsh induction into the world of adults and the film is tinged with regret. But, as Sachs demonstrates, the adaptability of teenagers, as opposed to the intransigence of adults, helps them to weather life’s storms.

Originally published by Cine-vue.com

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Theatre Review – Burning Doors

Posted by lucypopescu on September 25, 2016

imgresBELARUS Free Theatre (BFT) is a trail-blazing theatre company forced, in their native country, to work in secret locations. In 2010, its three founding members were granted asylum in the UK and have built a loyal following for their politically motivated, invigorating physical productions.

Burning Doors is a scathing critique of the brutal regime of Vladimir Putin. Performed in Russian (with English subtitles) and running at 105 minutes, it is undoubtedly challenging theatre, but also provocative, courageous and visually stunning.

BFT explore three real-life stories of dissidents who have been imprisoned for speaking out against repression. These include Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina, who makes her debut with the troupe; Russian performance artist Petr Pavlensky; and Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who remains in prison serving a 20-year sentence.

The words of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Michel Foucault are interwoven into the performance and the Austrian painter Egon Schiele is cited as an inspiration. BFT remind us that Russia is a prison – a madhouse where torture and impunity are rife and hysteria the end result. The circularity and banality of state interrogation is underlined while Putin’s rule of law is compared to a game of snooker – opponents are the potted balls.

The company combine physical performance and text to terrific effect. Figures suspended by ropes suggest terrifying scenes of torture and in one memorable scene two men tussle – one is repeatedly thrown to the ground before he rallies and begins to overcome his oppressor.

Burning Doors is a tour de force of political theatre and will remain with you long after the final, rapturous curtain call.

Soho Theatre

UNTIL SEPTEMBER 24
020 7478 0100

Originally published by Camden Review

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Film review – Things to Come

Posted by lucypopescu on September 8, 2016

Things to ComeMia Hansen-Løve’s fifth feature, Things to Come, starring Isabelle Huppert, is an introspective exploration of a woman losing her moorings and facing up to old age. Huppert plays Nathalie, a high school philosophy teacher. When Heinz (André Marcon), her husband of twenty-five years, also a philosophy lecturer, admits he has met someone else, she asks “Why did you tell me?” When he reveals that he is going to move in with her, Nathalie responds “I thought you would love me forever.” It’s a heart breaking moment, haunting in its simplicity. But for the most part, Hansen-Løve’s screenplay tackles profound questions with an intensity that some film goers might find off-putting.

Nathalie is delivered a series of emotional blows which cause her to question her own sense of self. Not only does she separate from her husband, a short time after she also loses her mother, Yvette. (Edith Scob delivers a terrific performance as a vain, demanding, former model, aging gracelessly). Yvette runs her daughter ragged, phoning her at all hours, threatening to commit suicide and refusing to eat, until Nathalie is forced to put her in a care home. There Yvette’s health quickly deteriorates – as though to punish her daughter for having put her there. Natalie’s children have left home and after Yvette’s death she is left with only her mother’s obese cat, Pandora, for company. She is suddenly free of all ties, but conversely this dents her confidence; her life loses direction and the paths to wellbeing she teaches her students seem harder to follow.

Nathalie’s academic reputation is also threatened when she is abruptly dropped by her publisher who deems her philosophy text book to be unimaginatively presented, despite the durability of the essays it contains. Then her protégé, Fabien (Roman Kolinka), a young writer, deserts her, both intellectually and geographically, by moving to a remote farmhouse and joining a commune of anarchists. Despite her growing vulnerability, Nathalie battles bravely on, continuing to teach and finding solace in her books. But one of the questions explored by Hansen-Løve is whether intellectual independence ever be an adequate substitute for emotional security?

Huppert’s finely nuanced portrayal of Nathalie’s interior life and her conflicting emotions is impressive. Beautifully shot by Denis Lenoir, Things to Come is a poignant study of aging and loss given an quintessentially French treatment by Hansen-Løve, but it never fully ignites. Although there is the suggestion that Nathalie’s life will acquire new meaning through the birth of her grandchild, her future is plagued by uncertainty and just as her emotional journey meanders without actually arriving anywhere, so does the film.

Originally published by http://www.cine-vue.com

 

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Theatre review – They Drink it in the Congo

Posted by lucypopescu on August 27, 2016

Congo (2)
Adam Brace’s epic play explores the legacy of colonialism, corruption and civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Brace tackles several issues, including the exploitation of the country’s rich mineral resources by multinationals – not least the mining of coltan for the electronics industry; the current conflict and sexual violence in the East; the factional party politics that continue to plague the nation and agitate the Congolese diaspora; and white, postcolonial guilt. It is no mean feat that he succeeds in moulding these various strands into a cohesive and satisfying whole.

 

Stef (Fiona Button) is the white coordinator of a London-based arts festival aimed at raising the profile of the Congolese people. She persuades former boyfriend, Tony (Richard Goulding), a PR guru, to help her engage the Congolese community and secure enough funding to ensure the event can go ahead. But the community is divided, the charities and NGOs have their own agendas, and not everyone wants to support a festival run by white people. We learn that Kenyan-born Stef has personal reasons for wanting it to go ahead.

Brace skilfully blends humour and horror, and Michael Longhurst’s well-paced production is full of surprises. In one brilliant juxtaposition, Jon Bausor’s boardroom set collapses to reveal a bottomless pit representing the mines that continue to be viciously fought over.

The ensemble cast is terrific. Sule Rimi deserves a special mention as the ghostly figure Oudry, and Joan Iyiola’s decision to perform various roles, despite suffering from a dislocated shoulder, is some measure of the actor’s commitment to this extraordinary play.

Almeida Theatre

UNTIL OCTOBER 1
020 7359 4404

Originally published in Camden Review

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Book Review – Signs Preceding the End of the World & The Transmigration of Bodies

Posted by lucypopescu on August 27, 2016

Signs Preceding the End of the WorldTwo superb novellas by Mexican Yuri Herrera, translated by Lisa Dillman and published by the pioneering indie publisher And Other Stories, herald a major new talent.

Herrera writes about the underbelly of Mexico today: violence, poverty, corruption and impunity. In extraordinary prose he creates stark landscapes and surreal scenarios which remain with you long after the final pages.

Signs Preceding the End of the World opens boldly with a giant sink hole threatening to envelop Herrera’s feisty female protagonist: “I’m dead, Makina said to herself, and hardly had she said it than her whole body began to contest that verdict and she flailed her feet frantically backward, each step mere inches from the sinkhole, until the precipice settled into a perfect circle and Makina was saved.” Makina is instructed by her mother to go to the United States to bring her brother home. She has to enlist the help of various local gangsters in order to ensure safe passage. In return she has to take a package across the border for the reptilian Mr. Aitch, the type of person “who couldn’t see a mule without wanting a ride”.

There is an epic quality to Herrera’s tale. Herrera has said that Signs is partly inspired by pre-Hispanic myth where the afterlife consists of nine levels which have to be traversed by those souls not chosen by the gods; their destiny is decided by the manner of their death. For English readers not familiar with these legends, Makina’s perilous voyage across the Rio Grande in “an enormous inner tube” is more likely to recall Greek mythology — a journey across the River Styx with Makina’s indestructible trafficker, Chucho, reminiscent of the ferryman Charon.

As soon as Makina enters the US she crosses over into an underworld inhabited by illegal Mexicans, many of whom have given up their identities and everything they love and hold familiar. They may never see their families again. It is the end of the world as they know it and, Herrera suggests, a limbo between death and rebirth. There is a memorable passage when Makina is picked up by an American cop and utlilising her knowledge of anglo, she challenges his inherent racism, inhumanity and the demonisation of Latinos:

“We are to blame for this destruction, we who don’t speak your tongue and don’t know how to keep quiet either. We who didn’t come by boat, who dirty up your doorsteps with our dust, who break your barbed wire. We who came to take your jobs, who dream of wiping your shit, who long to work all hours. We who fill your shiny clean streets with the smell of food, who brought you violence you’d never known, who deliver your dope, who deserve to be chained by neck and feet. We who are happy to die for you, what else could we do? We, the ones who are waiting for who knows what. We, the dark, the short, the greasy, the shifty, the fat, the anemic. We the barbarians.”

The Transmigration of BodiesThe Transmigration of Bodies is a more direct critique of the violence of the drug wars that plague Mexico today. It’s set in an unnamed city where residents lives in fear of a deathly disease carried by Egyptian mosquitos. I was immediately reminded of when the H1N1 virus (also known as ‘swine flu’) hit Mexico. The government imposed a five-day shut down and Mexico’s capital became a ghost town. There was virtually no traffic, few people on the streets and many shops were closed. Those brave enough to venture outside their homes wore surgical masks. It was utterly surreal but you had to be there to believe it (I was). This is the apocalyptic world Herrera evokes in his opening pages:

“Buzzing: then a dense block of mosquitoes tethering themselves to a puddle of water as tho attempting to lift it. There was no one, nothing, not a single voice, not one sound on an avenue that by that time should have been rammed with cars. Then he looked closer: the puddle began at the foot of the tree, like someone had leaned up against it to vomit. And what the mosquitoes were sucking up wasn’t water but blood. And there was no wind. Afternoons it blew like a bitch so there should’ve at least been a light breeze, yet all he got was stagnation. Solid lethargy. Things felt much more present when they looked so abandoned.”

Things are not always as they first appear in Herrera’s novels. It is as though true horror cannot be contemplated until it is experienced. A similar moment occurs inSigns when Makina reaches the US desert:

“Off in the distance she glimpsed a tree and beneath the tree a pregnant woman. She saw her belly before her legs or her face or her hair and saw she was resting there in the shade of the tree. And she thought, if that was any sort of omen it was a good one: a country where a woman with child walking through the desert just lies right down to let her baby grow, unconcerned about anything else. But as they approached she discerned the features of this person, who was no woman, nor was that belly full with child: it was some poor wretch swollen with putrefaction, his eyes and tongue pecked out by buzzards.”

The precariousness of life, its lack of value, are recurrent themes in both novellas. In The Transmigration of Bodies feuding gangsters continue to operate despite the fear of deadly infection. Herrera’s opening chapter introduces us to a young man, hung over, and desperate to seduce his neighbour ‘Three Times Blond’. We learn his name is ‘The Redeemer’ and that he is a fixer of sorts who mediates between rival families in order to avert unnecessary bloodshed. The Castros and the Fonsecas are each in possession of a dead body belonging to the other family. The Redeemer and his cohorts, a bodyguard known as ‘The Neeyanderthal’ and a local nurse, Vicky (who has to ascertain the cause of death), are employed to help facilitate the exchange of corpses.

Herrera combines lyricism with wry, black humour and employs a range of registers, colloquialisms and neologisms. In Dillman’s Translator’s Note in Signs she explains how she had to find an alternative for the neologism, jarchas, from the Arabic kharja, meaning both ‘exit’, and the word for an ‘end couplet’ in Mozarabic poems. She final decided on ‘to verse’ as her neological substitute for ‘to leave’. Her reasons are illuminating: “[it’s] a noun turned verb, a term clearly referring to poetry and part of several verbs involving motion and communication (traverse, reverse, converse) as well as the “end” of the uni-verse.”

Herrera writes about liminal spaces, so it is fitting that the bridge between language and culture, the very art of translation, is foregrounded in his novels. In his brilliant, multi-layered narratives he captures some of the conflicting forces shaping (and distorting) Mexico today and the impact of violence and xenophobia on ordinary people’s lives.

Originally published in huffingtonpost.co.uk

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