Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Grave Secrets

"How do you make Guatemala look bland?" observed Scott accusingly of Kathy Reichs' novel while commenting on my earlier post.

Right now I am about half-way through this Guatemala-based crime-fiction story, rated by the above-mentioned commenter as one of the worst he's ever read, and the signs are I'm going to have to agree with him.

People argue about precisely how many words of The Da Vinci Code you have to read before you realise what utter tosh it is. In this case the picture of Reichs inside the front cover provided a massive clue, but I pressed on anyway. Like Scott I took it on only because I thought it might provide the kind of Guatemalan travel journal that only a visiting forensic anthropologist might produce.

The sister of my friend Tom the archaeologist ended up in this particular profession, picking through the charred bones of Branch-Davidians from Waco. Not a great conversationalist though. Tom hated physical anthropology the way Indiana Jones hates snakes, and was rusticated from Cambridge for a year for alleged possession of a tiny crib-sheet in the phys-anth Part 1 exam.

Before Scott's comment, my next post was to have been on Gil Courtemanche's masterful treatment of the Rwandan genocide in 1994: A Sunday at the pool in Kigali. Guatemala's own genocide is yet to produce any decent literature, but then epic murder is surely not obliged to foster great art. I was a bit wary of the fictional approach to Rwanda before I read Courtemanche's preface:

"This novel is a novel. But it is also an eyewitness report. The characters all existed in reality and in almost every case I have used their real names. The novelist has given them lives, acts and words that summarise or symbolise what the journalist observed while in their company...Some readers may attribute certain scenes of violence or cruelty to an overactive imagination. They will be sadly mistaken."

More on that book later. There is however, one truly remarkable account of the genocide in Guatemala: Masacres en la Selva: Ixcán, Guatemala, 1975-1982 by Ricardo Falla, a Jesuit, who also happens to be an anthropologist. For me the disconcerting aspect of this book is the way its author tries to present it as pure field research, adopting a dispassionate stance that allows the information and eyewitness accounts gathered in the refugee camps to make their own case.

Falla reveals how and why scorched earth came to the forefront of the counterinsurgency campaign. The Generals were ultimately following the counsel of a British counter-insurgency expert from the South-East Asian conflicts called Robert Thompson. His advice was essentially to exterminate rural communities that might be providing logistical support, albeit indirectly, to well-entrenched insurgents. Reluctant to allow their own soldiers to fully implement Thompson's theories in the field, the Americans advising Guatemala's military saw no reason however not to give it a go over there.

What began as "selective repression", adduction and torture in the late seventies had escalated to mass murder by the turn of the decade. Falla's narrative is indeed harrowing: in the Spring of 1982 a column of soldiers had encirlced a number of villages and was systematically wiping out their inhabitants in the most brutal of fashions. But then something odd happened. As the column entered another village intent on yet more mass-murder, news reached their officers of a golpe back in Guatemala City which had resulted in the deposition of thick and nasty Romeo Lucas García by a triumvirate led by Efraín Ríos Montt. Instead of chopping up the inhabitants and setting fire to them, the soldiers started to mill around and socialise with them. For a day or so there was real doubt about the transition. Should they stop or just carry on? Eventually they carried on, but this rather eerie interlude of comparative restraint uncovered by Falla's research is thought-provoking.

In Grave Secrets Reichs is mainly concerned with the output side of the massacres: bones with tell-tale grooves from machete blows. The men responsible were "mutants" she offers. Just how can they get to sleep at night?! She makes the rather obvious point that the victims were, in the main, poor peasants of Maya origin, but fails to add the less obvious, but still rather interesting point, that so too were most of the perpetrators (albeit as soldiers serving the metropolitan elite). This makes Guatemala's 'genocide' different.

For me one of the few failings of Courtemanche's book is his apparent sympathy for the view expressed by one his characters that the Rwandan genocide was essentially the same as the Holocaust, just a poor-man's version in which machetes were used because the Hutus couldn't afford gas chambers. There are always important differences.

Kathy Reichs is most often compared to Patricia Cornwell. In her recent Guardian interview she had a Miss Piggy-style elbow swipe at her rival: ""Patsy Cornwell is a writer, not a scientist...Because I write about what I do, rather than researching the field, it gives my books greater authenticity. Many fiction writers who put the science in don't get it right."

It's a shame she couldn't be bothered to do some basic research on Guatemala then. "Cerote!" for example, does not mean "I'll be damed"! (I prefer "serote" anyway.) However, I did learn a few facts about the Guatemalan justice system that I didn't know before, such as the lack of jury trials. (Though who knows if Reich has actually swotted up properly on this?)

Lucas se truena

Romeo Lucas García, perhaps the most notorious of all of Guatemala's military rulers during the Civil War (and for many years the object of some of the country's cruelest political jokes), has died in Puerto la Cruz, Venezuela aged 81.

"Lucas" was briefly put under house arrest in Venezuela in 2005 after a Spanish judge had sought his extradition for his role in the 1980 police raid on the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala City that killed 37 people including Vicente Menchu, padre of Nobel Peace Prize-winner Rigoberta Menchu.

This weekend La Menchu expressed a desire to one day seek election herself to the presidency of Guatemala. Well, she couldn't be worse than Lucas...could she?

Infernal Affairs 3

More of a gap-plugger than anything else, and as the gaps being plugged occur at the end of the first and second films, I probably ought to have refreshed my memory of these in advance.

In contrast to the second installment all of the big names have returned (plus a few new major characters), but the emphasis is firmly back on style, so we learn little new about any of them - Wong and Sam in particular are very much background characters here.

Overall it savoured of yesterday's salad, brought back to life by chucking in some new ingredients and generally re-tossing.

Kelly Chen's Dr Lee has had her significance extended, with some gently comic-romantic scenes with Leung. There's a particularly memorable one where a split screen creates the illusion of a simultaneous session with the two moles on couches either side of her, finally coughing up their parallel secrets.

By the end Lau's "never-ending hell" has become a great deal worse. Perhaps this doom, or at least fate-laden trilogy will start a trend for greater metaphysical profundity in crime-thrillers.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Silly Season

Spotted this full rainbow over Waterloo bridge on my way home on Wednesday.

Last night the evening rush hour coincided with what was practically the first protracted sunny spell in all of May. The public response was rapid and frantic: pubs were overflowing onto pavements everywhere, while open-top cars paraded along the Strand. The rain is back with a vengeance this morning. It's been the only month of above average rainfall out of the last nine.

The silly season is almost underway. News that bird flu is starting to jump between humans is already being shunted several pages inside the newspapers, and soon it will take a catastrophe of truly global proportions to prize public attention away from the World Cup.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

"It's not good cop, bad cop. This is fag and New Yorker, and you're in trouble."

Shane Black has post-modernised his Lethal Weapon action/comedy duo formula and the result is a a funny old mix of extreme silliness and extreme violence; very funny in fact.

She might have been a bit of a zero in MI:3, but Michelle Monaghan has a memorable turn here as Harmony Faith Lane. Nevertheless, the real female lead in this movie is Val Kilmer's catty private investigator 'Gay Perry', the funnier half of a sequel-inspiring double-act with a fatigued petty-larcenist come Hollywood hopeful played by Robert Downey Jnr.

As well as Ian Fleming's James Bond the title references a quote by film critic Pauline Kael, who spotted the words on an Italian movie poster and concluded that the phrase exemplified the emptiness of modern cinema . Kiss Kiss Bang Bang wholeheartedly embraces that emptiness and the result is great, if ephemeral, entertainment.

From the hand of Mother Coca...

Evo Morales, the man that declared "long live coca and down with the Yanquis" in his presidential acceptance speech has his own colourful website.

This week the Economist rather pompously described London's mayor as an "ignorant paternalist" in reference to Ken's show of hospitality to Latin America's most irritating back-seat driver Hugo Chavez.

Chavez is not the sort of bloke around whom a natural consensus forms, but has certainly done a good deal to undermine the Washington Consensus in the past few months, as well as the electoral prospects of his 'pals' Ollanta Humala in Peru and Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico. Most of Latin America's governments (and would-be governments) are surely starting to think it's high time that Evo's no1 compadre took a chill pill.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006


Writing in the Independent Sir David Attenborough has come down off the fence today to announce that climate change is now the biggest single challenge that humanity faces.

He said he became convinced of the danger on viewing graphs connecting the increase of carbon dioxide in the environment and the rise in temperature with the growth of human population and industrialisation. "The coincidence of the curves made it perfectly clear we have left the period of natural climatic oscillation behind and have begun on a steep curve in terms of temperature rise, beyond anything in terms of increase that we have seen over many thousands of years."

On Monday night James Lovelock, originator of Gaia theory, was interviewed by Mark Lawson on BBC4. The 86-year-old is famed for his gloomy perspective, which he communicates with a distinctly un-gloomy demeanour.

All we Brits can do now is show willing, he insisted, all twinkly-eyed. Nothing we actually do will make a difference though. The big offenders are India, China and the US and he reckons it would take at least 30 years to turn them around and the planet no longer has that sort of time. One year, Indonesia alone contributed 40% of greenhouse gases just through bad agricultural practices.

It's also too late to cut back population levels voluntarily. Most of the world's population will starve, he prognosticates, leaving around 500m.

There are some possible treatments for the sick biosphere that Lovelock likens to being plugged into a dialysis machine: NASA could install an 8-mile-wide sunshade in space or commercial airliners could all run on unrefined kerosene, both of which would have a short-term cooling effect.

He calls himself a Green but the favour is not extended by the rest of the Green movement due to his persistent promotion of nuclear power. Our fear of all things nuclear has carried over from the Cold War, Lovelock told Lawson. In the past he has said that he would be willing to have the nuclear waste quite literally buried in his own back yard, arguing that radiation levels would be no worse than you experience living in St Ives (he already resides in Cornwall). Plus he would get free home-heating!

On the other hand he doesn't favour either wind farms or bio fuels as he suspects that the only sensible use of land from now on will be for what the supermarkets call produce. Using it to grow food for cars is utter madness, he exclaimed.

Lovelock is clearly another one of those contemporary scientists that senses a fundamental swing in the underlying approach of their discipline. For centuries Western science has been starkly rational and reductionist − it needed to adopt a bottom-up worldview in order to achieve the necessary distance from top-down religious thinking. But from the early part of the last century this kind of differentiation has been increasingly unsustainable. Indeed, Lovelock suggested to Lawson that the traditional scientific outlook is in the process of getting its "come-uppance" as the implications of Quantum theory are fully considered and disseminated across multiple disciplines.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Bloggers Chapines

Guatemala's first blogger reunion took place last Friday.

The day before, the Guatemalan government announced that at long last it would create an investigative body to look into the disappearances of around 45,000 civilians during the Civil war. "Uncertainty is a kind of permanent torture for the survivors," noted Frank LaRue, presidential human rights chief.

If the plan is approved by congress a national registry of victims could be established and who knows, there may even be some prosecutions.

I read the other day that crime fiction author (and originator of Bones) Kathy Reichs, by trade a forensic anthropologist, has fictionalised her experiences of examining human remains extracted from mass graves in Guatemala as Grave Secrets.

The rainy season has started in earnest over there, prompting a degree of hand-wringing about the unfinished state of works aimed at repairing the damage from last year's winter. 8000 families left homeless by Stan have yet to be relocated.

Monday, May 22, 2006

The Da Vinci Code

God is French. This is likely to come as a major disappointment to many Argentinians.

Such is the terrible secret guarded for centuries by a hidden society that once counted luminaries such as Sir Isaac Newton and Leonardo da Vinci amongst its members, but now seems to be made up of a weird-looking bunch of rural in-breds.

How did Brian Sewell not land the role of Sir Leigh Teabing? That would have made it so much more bearable. I guess this is one of those movies you simply have to endure in order to get the joke when they bring out the spoof.

I had been hoping for something daft but entertaining, but instead found it mostly stupid and dull.

The New York Times verdict was that Ron Howard's film "is one of the few versions of a book that may take longer to watch than to read." Three hours is an awfully long time for a story that simply doesn't grip in a cinematic way - this is really TV mini-series material. Surfer said that it actually felt rather low budget, its small cast being chased from location to location by two small squadrons of French and British police cars that also seem to be darting around frantically in the hope that all this movement will compensate in some way for the pervasive slowness of the plot. Much of the budget seems to have gone on absurd set-piece historical flash-backs to the likes of ancient Rome and the siege of Jerusalem.

It's surely ironic that Dan Brown's caper, which so demonstratively pokes a finger in the eye of those demented right-wing loons at Opus Dei, should have adopted the fantasy of a royal blood line running from Christ through the Merovingian kings, dreamed up by French fascists in the first half of the last century.

That the prophet could be mortal and married was one of Islam's key innovations and the descendants of Mohammed tried to preserve the sacred and secular authority of his bloodline for several centuries after his death. Dynasties generally don't last for millennia. It can hardly be said that this Islamic experiment has done an awful lot for women's rights and tolerance in general. (And if anyone in the early Christian church had a thing against women it was St Paul, not Emperor Constantine.)

"It's not the Vatican that is killing people" one of the cassock-wearing freaks pronounces mid-way through, more for the audience's benefit than his companion's − one of several pointed caveats in a movie that otherwise does its level best to undermine traditional religious authority. (The Economist: "The most flagrant example of American anti-Catholicism, some say, since the Know-Nothings of the nineteenth century.")

The former head of security at Foyles bookshop in London was also a rather driven character called Silas. Company lore had it that Silas was ex-Mossad and the extremely tall and saturnine Israeli certainly cast a scary-looking figure. He once boasted to us that he'd nicked a bunch of nuns that were trying to make off with some books they'd hidden under their habits.

A few years ago the Consul at the Guatemalan embassy asked V to keep an eye on a young compatriot called Ana. Her rich boyfriend had come up with an original ruse for ending their relationship − buying her a one-way ticket to the UK and promising to meet her here (which of course he didn't).

After her pocket money ran out the only accommodation the embassy could find for Ana was in an Opus Dei house in Hamstead. Whenever V went to visit her they practically refused to let her leave before she had confessed all her sins! Nutters. In the end Ana came to stay with us and saved up enough to return to Guatemala, still convinced that it had all been a horrible misunderstanding. We never heard from her again.

Friday, May 19, 2006


In return for the cup of milky English tea I made him the other day my French colleague Joel let me in on one of his (formerly) closely guarded secrets - a Korean restaurant in Golden Square called Arang.

I haven't been so pleased to discover a new dining in London for a long time. My cousin and I were the only natives in a big room full of strikingly attractive young Koreans collectively poking away at the barbecues set the middle of every table.

Perhaps because I booked in advance the manager made a fuss over us all evening and sent over a plate of fresh fruit on the house for dessert. Joel had also recommended the cold noodle soup with pear which I managed to get appended to the set menu - delicious. The waitress instructed me how to add just the right quantities of (English?) mustard and vinegar to this delicately sweet broth.

As with most of these places tried out for the first time, the trick for all future visits will be to eat less!

There's a curiousity-inducing cocktail bar in the basement that is certainly private, and possibly only admits the sharper-dressed sort of Koreans. I didn't get much further than a hand on the glass door.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006


"What were Easter Islanders saying as they cut down the last tree on their island?," muses Jared Diamond as he seeks an explanation for why "any person or any group in any society would knowingly do something harmful to the society as a whole."

In an early chapter on corporate responsibility for environmental "clean-ups" in Montana, his conclusions are quite refreshing: "We the public bear the ultimate responsibility. Only when the public pressures its politicians into passing laws demanding different behavior from mining companies will companies behave differently: otherwise, the companies would be operating as charities and would be violating their responsibility to their shareholders."

I know I will again enjoy all the well-constructed arguments, but as with Guns, Germs and Steel there will be some nagging caveats. If that book was about relative success, he turns here to the causes of absolute failure, pinpointing 5 key factors in the sort of collapses that permanently compromise a given society's political and cultural complexity.

− Environmental Damage
− Climate Change
− Hostile neighbours
− Friendly trade partners
− Collective responses to environmental problems

For the first time, he argues, we now face these challenges on a global level − something which threatens to both lower Western living standards as it undermines our values. In this context modern technology (of the Information sort in particular) provides grounds for both optimism and pessimism: "For the first time in history, we face the prospect of a global decline. But we are also the first to enjoy to enjoy the opportunity of learning quickly from developments in societies anywhere else in the world today, and from what has unfolded in societies at any time in the past. That's why I wrote this book."

Diamond argues convincingly that a reliable, scientific understanding of the problem requires both good individual studies and good comparisons. "Only from the weight of evidence provided by a comparative study of many societies with different outcomes can one hope to reach convincing conclusions."

Yet you sense that he believes that collective decision-making is essentially a straightforward aggregation of individual decision-making, and that in general, human activity is just the wick on a composite candle made up of other "factors". Accordingly, a geographer might have predicted the slaughter in Rwanda: "Population growth, environmental damage and climate change provided the dynamite for which ethnic violence was the fuse." (Though in Guns, Germs and Steel it was perhaps geometry not geography that gave Eurasia the edge against America and other competitors.)

Back in the days when I studied History, I came across this line of argument frequently enough. Against it stood the concept much favoured by historians of the French school: mentalité − oh, how we loved to use that word in our A-level essays. These days it seems rather non-PC to say so, but I do believe it to be self-evident that cultures tend to sport quite stable personalities. If some are risk-averse, others are reckless...honest/dishonest, explorative/stay-at-home, kind/cruel etc. More controversially perhaps, they can be collectively clever or dumb − the individual IQs within the society mattering less than the speed and depth of the connections between them.

Indeed, in general these cultural personae not simply an aggregation of the personalities of their current constituent members, as they are constantly contributing to the formation of the individual personalities within them. In other words, you cannot fully assess collective decision-making without some sort of understanding of local loops of cultural dynamics.

But it's early days yet; I am still drifting through Modern Montana, on page 37 of 525. Much of this criticism is in a sense anticipated, based on my reading of Diamond's earlier work. I shall post an update later in the summer...if the World Cup doesn't wreak havoc with my planned reading projects!

Monday, May 15, 2006

Cuba Libre

Somehow I had always assumed that the name of this cocktail derived from the Cuban Revolution, but when my father told me this weekend that he used to drink them in Kansas City in the 40s, I decided to investigate: It was first mixed at a Cuban bar in August of 1900 during the Spanish-American War by a member of the U.S. Signal Corps. Instead of Coca-Cola he used a syrup of cola nuts and coca!

Venezuelan Presidente Hugo Chavez is lunching in London with Mayor Ken today. Fresh from her appearance at the LG Chocolate Phone launch party, Jade Jagger will be there, as well as Harold Pinter (inevitably) and Peter Voser, Chief Financial Officer of Shell International (interestingly). Livingston has described Chavez as "the best news out of Latin America in many years". The Tories are "disgusted" by this luncheon.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Hold the Line

You can try to tell people that certain issues are inherently complex, but they generally won't listen.

Instead they'll just look at the two main polarities on offer and pick one to sign-up to. Whether it's the War on Terror or Immigration, if you want to be heard, you have to be either for it or against it...or you are nowhere.

Except perhaps when it comes to humour. A good gag will often expose the ironies that people would otherwise avoid confronting. The Onion had a great one last week − a week that began in the US with the Day without an Immigrant protests:

"As dozens of major American corporations continue to move their manufacturing operations to Mexico, waves of job-seeking Mexican immigrants to the United States have begun making the deadly journey back across the border in search of better-paying Mexican-based American jobs."

There were boycott activities in 70 US cities with sympathy stoppages in Guatemala and other primary sources of the 11m indocumentados in the States. "The flower and produce markets in downtown Los Angeles stood largely and eerily empty." noted the New York Times the next day.

At the same time, Nuestro Himno, a Spanish-language version of the Star-Spangled Banner performed by Wyclef Jean and the rehabilitated Gloria Trevi, was forcing an opinion out of George W. Bush: "I think the National Anthem ought to be sung in English".

In terms of geography and international law the sourthern border between the US and Latin America is a long thin line. Yet in almost every other sense, historical, cultural, economic etc. it is a far more complex intersection.

Part of the problem would seem to be that the United States of Mexico and the United States of America have conflicting mythologies of origin underlying their political sense of self. North of the Rio Grande displacement of the 'natives' was a crucial step in the formation of this ideal commonwealth of nations. By way of contrast it used to said that in post-revolutionary Mexico there was only one known statue of Hernan Cortes; and that was in a 4-star hotel. Mexico's heroes are indians not cowboys.

Which may be one reason why certain sectors of the American Right view the Hispanisization of their country as a kind of redskin Reconquista. These are the sort of people anyway inclined to imagine their nation as a homestead surrounded by ululating savages; and some of them have been deliberately muddling the issues of immigration and national security by fuelling persistent rumours that maras like the Salvatrucha are being actively encouraged Al Qaeda.

The irony here is that these ultra-violent, transnational gangs resulted from America's post Cold War policy of mass-deportations of Central American offenders from its own inner cities. This gave rise to a multi-country organised crime structure which is far more dangerous than the crack-crazed street gangs originally sent packing southwards.

It's hard to be sympathetic to the border is an inviolable line point-of-view when US government is so energetic about re-modelling its neighbours in ways that favour US business. At the same time that the FTA would establish the free movement of goods, Congress debates legislation which would harden restrictions against the free movement of people. However hard you fortify the frontier, the boundary between the First and Third Worlds is likely to remain at its most nebulous across this hemisphere.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Famous Colombians

Metro recently described Shakira as "Colombia's only celebrity". Leaving aside Juan Pablo Montoya (as one must), this struck me as a little unfair on this violent nation's other musical superstar Juanes. Perhaps he hasn't achieved quite the same international name-recognition as his diminuitive compatriota, but he has "swept the Latin Grammys" in his time, and the catchy Camisa Negra has been doing the rounds on the UK music channels of late.

Sadly, I read yesterday that Soraya (pictured), another successful singer-songwriter from Colombia, had written a farewell note to her fans, and this morning she finally succumbed to the breast cancer that also took the lives of her mother, grandmother and aunt.

Why are internationally-successful recording artists Colombia's second biggest export? My own theory is that it sits nicely athwart the main musical divide in the region - that between the African-influenced beats of the tropics and the would-be rockers of the southern cone.

Shakira in particular has a well-reported knack for blending (and jumping between) Latin musical genres and styles, and frequently also calls upon her own Middle-Eastern musical heritage. Only Brazil and Mexico appear to have the same motive and opportunity, but the output from both is often a bit too 'local' for global tastes.

Anti-landmine campaigner Juanes is about to receive another Russian-made AK-47 converted into a guitar. This escopetarra used to belong to the ultra-right-wing militia the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) which is disarming in accordance with an agreement signed with the government.

Colombia has also announced that it will be relaxing its prohibition on abortion. A court has decided to permit terminations in cases of rape, incest or if the life of the mother or foetus is in danger. Only Chile and El Salvador (and outside the region, Malta!) continue to maintain a draconian total ban.

Here in London, there has been an unremarkable line-up of artists for the La Linea festival this year. The low-light promised to be Victoria Abril, but her concert was cancelled (hopefully due to lack of interest!). Sounding utterly dreadful in both English and in Portuguese, the former Almodovar muse has been trying to establish a successful recording careeer by projecting the same sonrisa boba (stupid smile) into her renditions of the bossa nova classics that made such a mint for Bebel Gilberto a couple of years ago.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006


Scott from Virginia left a comment on my recent post that drew attention to Pollo Campero's expansion into global markets, reporting that when his local branch opened "there were lines for months, police directing traffic, and guardrails installed to channel the queue."

Campero made its momentous leap from regional to global chain after they studied the till receipts from their restaurants in Central American airports. A couple of years ago V came across quite a touching case of this traffic. Due to adverse weather conditions her flight to Houston from Guatemala was diverted to an airfield in north west Texas. After a wait there, she and a small group of assorted Central Americans were eventually flown back down to Houston, but found the city in some disarray and with very few spare hotel rooms around George Bush Intercontinental. The airline (Continental) gave them vouchers for accommodation and packed them all onto a minibus, but when they reached the allocated hotel they were told there were no longer any vacancies. This disappointment reoccurred at two additional locations before a chap from El Salvador applied the necessary aggression to the situation and space was found for them at a Days Inn.

Many hours had passed since the first flight landed and V had noticed that there was an old Guatemalan lady in the group clutching a small Pollo Campero take-away bag. V tried to persuade her to tuck in, but she insisted that she was taking these camperitos (chicken nuggets) to her niece in America. By then they must have been very cold and the vieja was herself obviously very hungry, but she clung resolutely to the idea of carrying this little paper bag of happy Guatemalan flavours to the home of her relatives in exile.

The US branches of Campero serve Horchata and Tamarindo along with Coca-Cola. Recently V has been encouraging me to drink a lot of tamarind for its health benefits. Fortunately our local ASDA has started selling it in a solid form that can be diluted and strained. Aside from anything else, once you get used to the flavour, it's a real thirst quencher.

I'm not not sure if Scott's local Campero is Herndon or Falls Church, but I've heard that the latter features a mural depicting Latino achievements in the US, very much the topic of the moment. (More on that shortly...)

Brokeback Mountain

Maybe Crash deserved its controversial points victory. Ang Lee's film is like one of those fancied fighters that only ups his work-rate for the last few rounds, winning them convincingly, but perhaps not really making up for earlier plodding.

Given that the script for this full length feature swelled out of Annie Proulx's short story, what intrigues me is where the author's chosen emphasis lay. The slow start in the mountains, the awkwardness bordering on comedy of the mid-section, or the pathos and bitterness of the last act? I shall have to find out.

Often the best way to show people the truth (and the lies) of their own lives is to reveal to them resonant dilemmas faced by characters that are in some important way very different from themselves. The face value of this story is of course very high, but it can also be taken as a more general allegory about the ways we find to waste our lives, which often start with a failure to act on the glimpses of transcendence that many of us are granted in our youth.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Lost Embrace

Fairly funny (and almost moving) Argentine comedy about a group of individuals that own and run small units in an underground shopping arcade in el once, Buenos Aires.

Specifically it is the story of Ariel, a young Jewish man set adrift by the feeling that his father abandoned him as a baby to fight the Yom Kippur war in Israel, who has decided that he must somehow flee the confinement of this little world, even if it means becoming Polish. It's basically a series of bittersweet comic sketches, shot almost in documentary style, with the story of Ariel's eventual reunion with the father he lost holding it all together.

After a long time wondering why there weren't any good movies showing in London, a whole bunch of them are about to turn up. Against my better judgement I have committed to see The Da Vinci Code with Surfer at the Kensington Odeon, but closer to my office at the Curzon there will shortly be showing another film by one of the betterFrench directors of the moment, François Ozon, entitled Le Temps Qui Reste and Down in the Valley with Edward Norton which looks excellent. I'm also looking forward to Secuestro Express a frenetic exploration of the kidnap phenomenon in Latin America and Tony Takitani, based on a story by Haruki Murakami. Next up will probably be Lemming though.

La Sombra del Viento

It begins and ends with a trip to a place called The Graveyard of Forgotten Books and personally I couldn't think of a more suitable home for Carlos Ruiz Zafón's mega-bestseller.

Can so many Spanish readers be wrong? All I can say is that they do seem to revel in this kind of flat-pack 'classic' − with Arturo Pérez-Reverte being the biggest literary brand in this espacio...up to now.

I began by thinking I'd pass this novel on to V's bright and imaginative niece Raysa when I finished it, but have now concluded that it is neither childish enough for children or grown-up enough for adults.

The story is a sticky web of jumbled destinies within another of jumbled genres; in essence a blend of middle-European Gothic fantasy and sub-Dickensian detective piffle. And frankly, it's not really a story that needed to be told.

English-language reviewers try to draw what they see as the obvious stylistic comparisons. "García Márquez meets Umberto Eco meets Jorge Luis Borges," suggested Richard Eder in the New York Times. (In fact it's a lot closer to Isabel Allende − and yet there's more substance to even her brand of storytelling!)

Aside from the early reference to an impossibly large library, the comparison with Borges is especially unfortunate. When The Garden of Forking Paths was submitted to Argentina's National Awards for Literature the judges claimed to see in it "certain deviant tendencies of contemporary English literature" and declared that it hovered "between the tale of fantasy, a pretentious and recondite erudition and detective fiction." These were unfair criticisms of Borges' fictions, but would stick if thrown at The Shadow of the Wind. (Agh! Even the title is annoying!)

In spite of one significant 'fold' in the narrative, and other metaphorical markers of complexity, the plot advances rather like an adventure game where the protagonist moves forward in a strictly linear fashion, meeting strange new individuals and proceeding on the basis of the information they impart.

In the main the tale is narrated by one young man, but there are some odd switches, including a ludicrously extended suicide note that lasts for 81 pages. Most of the characters are really just ciphers for the novel's simplified moral universe. Indeed the city of Barcelona itself is the only personality in the story with any real depth.

Zafón has written extensively for the big screen and here spends far too long for my taste setting each scene visually. He is also one of those authors who seems more at pains to show us how much he cares about his characters − and they for each other − than actually giving his readers much reason to care about them.

I'm generally not that good at advance-guessing narrative surprises, but I could see all the key twists and outcomes here coming from a mile off. As a result it became steadily harder to turn the pages. All in all, Zafón appears to have set out to severely test the theory expressed by one of his characters, that there are "worse jails than words."

Mission Impossible III

In an attempt to give a bit more substance to the persona of Ethan Hunt, the script for the third MI movie has fashioned him as an amalgam of James Bond, Jason Bourne and Harry Tasker from True Lies. Yet Hunt obstinately remains less than the sum of these parts; it's still just Tom Cruise. He even has a love interest cast as a Katie Holmes look-alike.

Surfer and I were once again well-positioned in row D of Screen 1 over at the Kensington Odeon, our preferred venue for the louder sort of movie. (The volume in there really is optimised for noise rather than dialogue.)

Entertaining yet exhausting would be my final verdict. "It seems to have moved up a gear since the last one," commented Surfer with a yawn at the end. Either that or we have shifted down one!

In the same way I now lack the mental agility to get my head around some of today's first person computer games, many of the faster-paced sequences here were playing just beyond the limits of my perception. I also found this kind of ultra-jerky camera-work annoying in the Bourne Supremacy, but at least agency outcast Bourne interacts a bit more deeply with his foreign locations.

In spite of all the bangs and the running around, there isn't actually that much action, at least not in the sense that John Woo, director of MI:2, would understand the term. Hunt's foe here, Owen Davian, appropriately matches him for lack of substance. Yet Philip Seymour Hoffmann makes the most of two scenes where he is charged with exuding a deeply menacing nastiness; it's just a shame he has to do a 'talking bad guy' stint at the end. By then, making Hunt's life unpleasant in a rather complicated way seems to have become more important to him than whatever his original scheme was.

How many times does Ethan Hunt have to be betrayed by his own colleagues before he starts to consider a career change? If it wasn't for the perfect American white picket fence life that seems to be beckoning here, you'd certainly be asking some serious questions about the source of his motivation.

Another quibble: the plot-shifts in the final Shanghai sequence seem to invalidate at least part of what we have seen earlier. (Spoiler: if the agency chief isn't in league with Davian, who had the authority to call in the air strike and the black choppers?)

There was one good bit of unintentional comedy - one of Hunt's IMF colleagues explains his vision for the endgame thus: "And then we'll do what America does best...clean up." Hello...Iraq?

Friday, May 05, 2006

The Price of Fish

Got myself up at the crack of dawn this morning and went to Billingsgate Market. I quickly regretted not having remembered to take my choco-movil along, as there were untold opportunities to snap away at extraordinary things. So, until I return there next week, you'll have to make do with this pic I snatched of Billy Zane at the Chocolate phone launch party on Wednesday night.

The old boys that hearteningly call me "young man" when I buy stuff are still there, but their wares now include exotica such as Croaker , Kingfish and pink Dorade. There were even a few cases of shark. I stopped at a stall run by Sri Lankans to gawp at an enormous Barramundi laid out on its polystyrene cargo box and some very edible looking Emperor fish, which I must investigate further.

I have an old friend coming for dinner tonight who has just completed a week of chef's training with Cornish crone Rick Stein − so I thought I might try something fishy. In the end I came away with my usual box of shrimp and some Barracuda steaks. (I once helped cook Barracuda in Belize, but that was over a wood fire, not something I will attempt to replicate tonight. )

With 16 years on the island I haven't really taken enough advantage of this incredible local resource. It's the getting up at 4am and smelling of fish for the rest of the day that has tended to deter me. This time I put my clothes straight into the washing machine, my shoes out on the balcony to 'air' and doused myself in Polo before setting off to work. Hopefully nobody will be any the wiser!

The rest of the customers at the market this morning were generally Chinese or Africans, many of them lugging black bin bags full of ocean produce around from stall to stall. Just me and the crows in the ASDA car park a bit later on at 5:30am. Now that it has become a 24-hour supermarket, this really is the best time to shop as you get the pick of the day's fruit and vegetables.

We've been supporting LG's launch of the Chocolate phone in the UK this week by setting up a blog (and accompanying blogger-relations programme) and by playing around with these nifty little mobiles ourselves. The launch party was held at Sketch on Wednesday night with a host of decorative types on the guest list and Goldfrapp on stage to perform tracks from their new album (released on Monday).

As well as Billy Dead Calm Zane, Jade Jagger, June Sarpong, Brett Anderson, Sean Pertwee and Colleen McLoughlin all put in an appearance. Speaking of whom, the loos at Sketch looked a bit like the sort of oxygen chamber that the future Mrs Rooney might have left her other half sitting in when she set off alone for our bash that evening. (There was a middle-aged Swedish blonde dressed as a French chambermaid on standby to hold your wine glass while you were sealed inside. )

It was my first time at Sketch. Seems to be a similar set up to Home House, but not quite as nicely fitted out, LG pod-bogs notwithstanding. (Sketch has a heinous website, Home House is expecting.)

As for the phone, I don' t want to be parted from it. (And certainly not forcibly, as happened with that Sony Ericsson I had − albeit briefly − in 2004. ) In the case of the Motorola clamshell I have just disowned, you always knew which pocket it was in, which is not necessarily a good thing.

For many males of my generation, some of the most desirable gadgets are those that remind us of the props from the science fiction shows of our youth, and on this front the Chocolate phone certainly delivers. There's something distinctly r-ET-ro about those glowing red buttons. It also reminds me of two other important technology classics in my life: the 'banana' phone (my last slider, now proudly stashed in a drawer with my Sinclair ZX81) and the very first touch-sensitive TV I got my tiny mits on way back in the 70s before even consumer VCRs had hit the market. (The loss of buttons on TVs and the rise of the remote had consigned this rather enjoyable technology to something of a wilderness exile.)

I think it's going to take me a week or so to re-train my thumb to handle the slightly different user interface.

The weekend beckons. I'm off to see MI:3 with Johnny Surfer, the only person I know that counts Tom Cruise and Matt Damon as his two favourite actors. "What a Philistine this man is.." was his response to Paul Arendt's hilarious review for the Beeb:
"The only real problem is Tom himself, who manifestly fails to convince as
a human being. With his plasticised musculature and ten kilowatt grin, he's less
of an action hero and more of an action figure. It's getting harder with each
film to divorce the movie persona from the sofa-vaulting loon..."

Proshecto Gotan

The tracks on Gotan Project's new album Lunatico are generally more downbeat than those on La Revancha del Tango − which is probably why they are playing at the Shepherd's Bush Empire this summer and not in the quad at Somerset House like they did back in July of 2003.

The album has its highlights though. So far my favourite is Mi Confesión, with vocals by some homies from BA called Koxmoz. It pinches a riff from another world music hit: Paris Dakar by Senegalese hip-hoppers Daara J.

Apparently Riff is also the name of the language spoken by the Berber peoples inhabiting Er Rif. How very WOMAD.

It looks like Somerset House has had to deal with some hoax announcements about the acts they've signed-up to appear there this summer:
"On-line adverts for shows by Radiohead, Kaiser Chiefs, Arctic Monkeys and
KT Tunstall at Somerset House in July 2006 at Somerset House are a hoax. All of
these artists will not be performing at Somerset House this summer."