Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Premenstruals' finest in action

The comments reflect some disagreement over which party was more acting more prepotente in this situation. (Thanks to Scott for the link.)

UPDATE: Listen carefully with headphones and you'll hear the wife of the man with the camera telling her spouse to pipe down, because she thinks the PMT will hit them with another fine and they don't actually have any money!

Enter the Void (2009)

Equal parts fascinating and downright annoying, Gaspar Noé's Enter the Void felt a bit like watching someone apathetically exploring Second Life, zooming around at roof level, occasionally plonking themselves down in bizarre environments in order to catch the middle of half-grasped dialogue, before hitting Page Up again and floating off.

V compared it to the closing sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which had the advantage of being the back end of an otherwise narratively-conventional movie. She'd completely tuned out of its trippy visuals after about thirty minutes, though she told me to wake her up for the bit inside the vagina.

I'd been looking forward to this — the whole movie, not just the womb-cam sequence — because Tokyo is one of those places that has engendered a certain existential malestar in me, and a film located there and bearing such a title, indeed looked like a promising way of experiencing those same goose-bumps again.

Many of the resident foreigners I met in the Japanese capital last May were in a sense addicts, Japan-addicts, some of them aware that this addiction was potentially harmful on several levels, spiritual as well as physical.

The vices that Noé's characters embed themselves in are of course not in the least adventitious in this city, yet nor are they location-specific enough to have really piqued my interest. I can get a stronger fix from the photographs in Tokyo Clash, a half-sized coffee table book I keep in the downstairs loo, and although I've never been a cheer-leader for Lost in Translation it does provide an eerily detached, through-the-glass window perspective on the unsettling arousal that emanates from this metropolis. It might not be a place which offers to take the visitor's soul — the locals are polite but not very reachable — yet somehow seems able to implant the suggestion at the back of his or her mind that they free to go out and misplace it.

Do go see Irréversible before you see Enter the Void. The danger of slumber is significantly less, and you won't be carrying memories of carried over techniques, such as the throbby-whirry score, which Noé has deployed again here.

Grade: B(+-)

"Sun, sea and severed heads"

It would be no small irony should this week's Cancún jolly organised by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change be comprehensively incinerated by a methane-related explosion.

Spontaneously-combusting resort hotels
are just the latest challenge facing Mexico's tourism industry. "Sun, sea and severed heads: Mexico is not a holiday destination for the faint-hearted," wrote one of the Economist's notoriously un-bylined hacks this week.

Yet after the premature dubbing of swine flu as Mexican flu brought the 2009 season to an abrupt close, it would seem that visitor numbers have returned to the 2008 level of 22.6m, though this has been achieved in part by discounting (5% on average).

The Yucatán had the advantage of being quite a long drive from the most violent states (Guerrero for example has twenty times the number of murders) but much of the development along its coast over the past couple of decades has involves reclaiming swamp, hence the rather disconcerting new phenomenon of the exploding lobby.

Which is why I get pained looks from my father every time I mention taking a short trip over the border. As if living in Guatemala wasn't bad enough, he's now discovered that there really is a Guatepeor.

Of course the really bad stuff is mostly going closer to the northern border, Ciudad Juárez in particular. Last weekend saw the winding up of an exhibition at Shoreditch Town Hall entitled 400 Women, which was conceived in the following manner by Tamsyn Challenger, who went on to commission works from 175 fellow artists, men and women:

“This project began in 2005 when I was commissioned to make a feature for BBC Radio 4’s Woman's Hour. I travelled to Mexico and met with some of the families and was struck by their need to hand me postcards that had been generated as another aid to finding their loved ones. These images were black, white and pink and poorly produced but they started the concept in my mind and on the long flight home I had a half formed idea for what has become the project 400 Women. The concept relies heavily on a large-scale collaboration and, for me, each participating artist represents one of the murdered women, in some way invoking her, so that she can challenge humanity. Each image produced will stand as a statement against gender violence.”

Watching how The Review Show covered the exhibition's opening left me with mixed feelings. One doesn't have to be in the PR industry for very long to realise how different awareness is from comprehension.

Anyway, nobody is quite sure whether this rampant case of gynocide is an offshoot of the generally murderous conditions in the border city, or whether it reflects something more sinister, such as an entire masculine culture turned serial killer, or even sexual violence tourism. (Mexico welcomes 50m day trippers annually.)

Penguin has published a good backgrounder to the present turmoil in our northern neighbour: The Last Narco: Hunting El Chapo, The World's Most Wanted Drug Lord by Malcolm Beith, summarised nicely by Mark Ford in the LRB. (21/10/10)

Beith explains how America's regulation of the use of opiates from 1914 onwards didn't create tensions with Mexico until Nixon declared the first 'war on drugs'. Nixon told his chief-of-staff that the real problem was 'the blacks' at home — he just needed a system which took care of this without actually appearing to do so — so it wasn't until the arrival of Ronald Reagan that narcotics were formally recognised as a matter of national security and this onetime asunto of domestic law enforcement mutated into a key platform of US foreign policy.

During the late 80s Mexico's governing PRI led by American-educated Carlos Salinas fell under the spell of neoliberalism. And so, to some extent, did the then senior capo Gallardo, who broke up his plazas (routes pa'l norte), just as Salinas was breaking up public companies.

The lieutenants inheriting these delegated power structures were the original cartel bosses, and their lives became that much easier as Salinas deregulated the banks (making it easier to stash the loot) and the US administration tightened border controls, thereby improving the environment for organised smugglers.

Then Mexico joined NAFTA in '94, and the cartels started frantically buying up trucking companies and factories along the border, anticipating the good times to come. The immediate news for the agrarian economy was less positive however, as an influx of cheap American corn quickly deprived several million people of their livelihoods. New Presidente Vicente Fox duly suggested that Mexico's displaced peasants ought to welcome the opportunity to transform themselves into 'true businessmen', and of course, many did.

A consequence of the long-overdue conclusion of PRI rule at the start of the new century was that the old patronage relationships were immediately inverted. Police and politicos now largely worked for the traffickers, no longer vice versa.

In 2006 Felipe de Jesús Calderón Hinojosa was elected in circumstances not unlike those of the younger Bush, with (just over) half the population thinking 'what a swizz!' And there's nothing like a good war to take people's minds off legitimacy issues, is there?

Calderón had barely finished pinning the Presidential sash onto himself, when he dispatched 45,000 troops north of the capital, and wherever the army has turned up — even in those areas where the murder rate had been declining before 2006 — the violence has escalated dramatically. Close to 30,000 deaths were recorded for the first four years of Calderón's administration, though he has put it about that 90% of these were cartel members — a stat which, if unfudged, provides an indication of the enthusiasm with which his predecessor's call to private enterprise had been received.

Charles Bowden's Murder City: Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields suggests that allowing the military to investigate its own abuses may have contributed to the levels of unsolved murder torture and rape in that most deadly place to live, where 'armed commandos' has become a catch-all phrase for them that done it. "If you see dust," Calderón nevertheless observed last August"it's because we are cleaning the house."

31 reporters have been killed or disappeared since 2006.

Sinaloa-raised El Chapo Guzmán is the classic would-be narco-emperor, turning the hostility of the Federal government into a force for consolidation (less than 15% of narcs arrested since the army arrived have been Guzmán's boys) and stepping into the space left by an uncaring formal economy, funding infrastructure projects like schools, hospitals and churches, even private homes. Business remains good. More contraband is making it over the border and last year the Mexican authorities seized less cocaine than it had back in 1991.

Meanwhile the Obama administration has offered to extend the Merida Initiative (a $1.6bn bribe set up in 2008), and continues to use misleading terminology such as 'insurgency' in reference to the highly profitable capitalist enterprises flourishing south of the border. Murder keeps the prices up, it seems. Over on the (apparently) legal wing of this boom trade, Mexico's financial institutions and America's arms dealers and military contractors also have little to complain about.

Le Spectacle?

Chilean President Sebastián Piñera was last night interviewed on La Noche by Claudia Gurisatti. Still visibly throbbing with satisfaction deriving from the San José mine rescue, Piñera dismissed the remarks of Miguel Bosé, who just the other day claimed to be profoundly irritated, not in fact by Gurisatti, though she is humongously irritatting, but by the way the miners' predicament had been converted into a reality TV show.

Huh? So it's OK for musicians to use contrived spectacle to achieve political ends, but not actual politicians? Piñera rightly went on to point out that it would have been much harder for him to drum up support for the significant changes, improvements perhaps, to Chile's laws affecting labour conditions and mine safety in general, had there not been a degree of stage management in his government's response to the emergency.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Pics from the Archive (28)

Moscow 1985, Sparrow Hills (Vorobyovy Gory), with the Olympic Stadium from five years earlier prominent in the background.

Here Baksheesh and the then Hon. Eddie Vaizey — now the Rt Hon, Under Secretary of State for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, and lesser of the two Old Paulines in David Cameron's coalition government — simulate corrupt western activities then considered criminal by the men in the Kremlin.

On September 24 this year Eddie's name appeared at No10 in the 2010 Guardian Film P0wer 100, much to the bemusement of Simon Mayo, whose regular sidekick finally shows up close to the relegation zone. (75th). In fairness, Eddie had just abolished the UK Film Council.

At this historic moment in Soviet history, Konstantin Chernenko had 'a cold' and Gorby was waiting in the wings.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Facebook heads south...

Little more than a year ago, I was being forced to operate two social networks, one for my friends, family and former colleagues outside Guatemala (Facebook), and one for all the Chapines (Hi5). Now the local migration to the more prim and proper pages of Mark Zuckerberg's platform is almost complete.

Following the link trail from friends to friends of friends, I recently found myself in the bizarre Facebook ghetto that is Yepocapa. I've never actually been up there, but the impression one gets from "The Face" is a community packed with vain, materialistic, cousin-shagging servidores de Cristo, who like to moped around the place in Oscar de la Renta sunglasses, not entirely unlike southern Italians. (Mondragone was particularly memorable as far as this peculiar raza of poseurs goes.)

Those not listing 'La Biblia' — or even particular psalms — under their Favourite Books [Bibliaphiles?], leave no doubt about their cultural aspirations with remarks such as "Yo no leo" or even "Déjenme pensar...no, ninguno."

Just how far south we've come from the virtual hang-out of the Harvard elite, becomes clear the moment one lets one's curiosity assume control of the mouse. One pre-teen friend of a family member lists as her only interest Money. Her brother meanwhile has but one activity: Xbox 360, while another mate of his keeps himself busy with McDonalds and nothing else. One girl in this neck of the virtual woods seems almost offended by the question of 'Interests', having typed in her answer as Yo no soy interesada!

It's not all grim reading for anyone who cares about the future of civilisation in this part of the world, however. One of V's nephews is a biochemist and his circle of university friends quaff from a quite enviable pool of shared cultural interests: "Learn to live...free thinking...Ernesto Sabato, Nietzsche, Rayuela, Roberto Bolaño, Milan Kundera etc etc."

For some reason the movie version of Perfume seems to have gained a lot of traction with the junior chattering classes here in Guatemala. Perhaps the book isn't so freely available in translation.

Pics from the Archive (27)

Britain was in the grips of a very minor political scandal this week when Tory peer Howard Flight used the verb form of breed in reference to the procreational activities of the less affluent.

"We're going to have a system where the middle classes are discouraged from breeding because it's jolly expensive. But for those on benefits, there is every incentive. Well, that's not very sensible."

Conservatives usually mean something else entirely when they speak of breeding, especially good breeding.

Here in Guatemala we're OK with the idea that human beings rut like beasts, or indeed that the close to thirty different ethnic groups in the country can be categorised like show dogs. (This particular sign adorns the highway leading down to San Antonio Aguas Calientes.)

Food Porn (3)

Something of an experiment this, codos with octopus and yaki nori, accompanied by tomatoes, fried aubergine (eggplant), papas and huicoyitos.

The main news is that we have started to make our own picante, even re-filling some of our little plastic habanero empties.

The basic salsa is made from red peppers, miltomate and chiltepe. Some versions have a Thai-twist: usually fish sauce, coconut and perhaps even a trace of red curry paste. Here it was deployed as a dipping sauce.

Pics from the Archive (26)

A view of Dubai, from way back in August 2005, when the cranes were really starting to go up in earnest. (Taken shortly after take-off from the Dubai International/Sheikh Rashid Terminal.)

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Deferred crunch?

From the Reagan era onwards successive US administrations created the conditions in which around $1.5 trillion anti-gravitated upwards to the richest 1% of the population. This being more capital than the fuckoff rich could actually handle by themselves, they duly sent about $1 trillion back down the wealth pyramid in the form of highly suspect loans, largely targeting the very people who'd been missing out on the party (and boy had they been made to know what a friggin' cool fiesta this was).

We all know what happened next. An unthinkably large and very black hole opened up beneath the global financial system. Like Wile-e Coyote, the banks didn't realise that they had been running in mid-air until the late summer of 2008.

Such was the magnitude of the problem and the interconnectedness of its constituent parts, that even the party representing the interests of the richest 1% under a cloak of populism and jubilant ignorance, had no choice but to step in and transfer much of the risk from the private to the state sector, from bankers to taxpayers (and bondholders, lest we forget) — or from capitalism to socialism, according to the Republican Party's kool-aid quaffers.

Socialism doesn't usually involve building levees around storm-threatened capital, but in the US the bail-outs were accompanied by a change of administration and a 'stimulus' package involving increased largesse from central purses...and that's like, socialism, right?

Anyway, this urge to borrow and spend yet more came about partly because the new guys at the helm had a long-standing commitment to bringing America's treatment of the sick up to civilised norms, brooded over long before the Crunch. That the inefficient structures being replaced actually cost more (and thus implied bigger government) than the full-coverage systems of 'socialised' medicine operated by several European countries, wasn't something that the ideologues wished to ponder much at this point.

Whether or not one is oddly predisposed to see the transfer of risk from the corporate sphere to the state and its system of public debt in strictly Marxist terms (Capitalism v Socialism), the truth is that the sickness itself is essentially unchanged: a cancer within the global credit market.

Stimulus in the States and austerity in the EU appeared for a while to have kept it in remission, but over the past fortnight or so we've been seeing how the Eurozone could become the weakest link in the ongoing therapy package.

Suddenly you had a single currency with multiple attitudes and responses to the sudden surge of government debt as a proportion of GDP. Some of the member countries were caught with their pants down. In fact the Irish had yanked their own trousers down with gay abandon in 2006, an uninhibited display of fiscal self-endangerment which tempted the likes of WPP to pack up and move to Dublin. (Even a canny number-cruncher like Sir Martin Sorrel was unable to ask the obvious question of this deal which looked too good to be true.) While the Greeks are by nature inclined to take a narrow bend on a mountain road at full speed, the Irish simply thought they'd chance it in order to make a few extra Euros.

Who's next in the line of dominos? Spanish banks appeared to have dodged the sub-prime bullet, but GDP in Spain had been overreaching itself, so when the local construction boom turned to bust, they got caught holding the gruesome negative equity baby anyway. They are also carrying considerable exposure to Portuguese debt and Portugal is on most people's list as European sovereign state 'Most Likely to Go Tits-up Next'. (Though some have their money on Belgium with its disfunctional political system.)

Furthermore, as a member of the Eurozone, Spain has limited defences against a concerted speculative attack. If the bond market considers it a default-risk, the cost of government borrowing (and in 2011 it will need to conduct a substantial new round) will soar which will make the upping of Spain's tits something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The question is, Is Spain TBTF? And what of France, where the political will to impose austerity is likely to waver in the face of the sort of social commotion they just adore over there.

The tumour is still there, largely in remission, and nobody really thinks that the patient (even if its just the European single currency we're talking about) can be allowed to die. But can it really be 'austerised' out of the European body politic, and hasn't this crisis revealed that the Euro has a genetic predisposition towards ailing from this kind of credit cancer?

Stephens and Catherwood (4): La Dolce Vita

"The coast assumed an appearance of grandeur and beauty that realized my ideas of tropical regions. There was dense forest to the water's edge. Beyond were lofty mountains, covered to their tops with perpetual green, some isolated, and others running off in ranges, higher and higher, till they were lost in the clouds."

I wish I'd had access to this passage back in the days when Mr Parfitt used to oppress his fifth year English class at Colet Court with his stringently-held view that there is no such word in the language as "till".

Anyway, Stephens was already getting into the whole tropical adventure thing as the pair skirted around the Bay of Amatique. After PG, the next stop was a small settlement located at the mouth of the Rio Dulce, now quite widely-known to visitors to these parts, though not for the reasons anticipated at the start of that century:

"It was called by the familiar name of Livingston, in honour of the distinguished citizen of Louisiana whose criminal code was at that time introduced into Guatemala; and it was supposed, so advantageous was its position, that it would become the port of entry of Central America; but these expectations were not realized."

In 1839 one didn't have to drop into Puerto Barrios to get one's passport stamped*, so Stephens was able to press right on with Guatemala's most scenic entrada, recording the first time experience in a manner that will no doubt kindle recollections of the awe experienced by those of us who have since followed in his backwash.

"A narrow opening in a rampart of mountains wooed us on, and in a few moments we entered the Rio Dolce. On each side rising perpendicularly from three to four hundred feet, was a wall of living green. Trees grew up from the water's edge, with dense, unbroken foilage, to the top; not a spot of barrenness was to be seen; and on both sides, from the tops of the highest trees, long tendrils descended to the water, as if to drink and carry life to the trunks that bore them. It was, as its name imports, a Rio Dolce, a fairy scene of Titan land, combining exquisite beauty with colossal grandeur..."

The pair had been led to expect a degree of "gambolling" of monkeys and parrots, but instead found the steep gorge strangely quiescent during their up-river excursion to the harbour of 'Yzabal'.

"The pelican, the stillest of birds, was the only living thing we saw [wot no herons?], and the only sound was the unnatural bluster of our steam engine. The wild defile that leads to the excavated city of Petra is not more noiseless or more extraordinary, but strangely contrasting in its sterile desolation, while here all is luxuriant, romantic and beautiful."

It would seem that they passed up on the opportunity to try some of the local delicacies, such as these freshly harvested jutes:

* The customs post was then located beside Lake Isabal.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Buried (2010)

Rodrigo Cortés's Buried, set in its entirety inside a wooden box buried beneath Iraqi soil (though not so deep as to muffle a mobile signal*), was always going to be a pretty intense experience for claustrophobes. 

Not being a member of the latter category I was always going to need something more than the situation itself to maintain the suspense. The director clearly gave some thought to this (hence the snake interlude for the alternatively phobic) but the deployment of the chosen ideas is somewhat haphazard. 

I suppose one can also enjoy the film as a dark satire on the American way of telephony with particular emphasis on customer and employee relations. 

 The trouble is that all this focus on the cellphone and the strange and pointed conversations that it faciliates with the world outside and above the casket, ultimately detracts from the verisimilitude of the scenario. Grade: B (+-) 

 * I suppose this deserves some credit as one of the few modern horror movies where mobile phones don't require plot-excision and where the audience isn't treated to the seemingly obligatory 'no signal' shot!

Historic peace accord?

Pics from the Archive (25)

Back in 2005 we drove down to Rome for a friend's wedding, stopping here on day four in Genoa for supplies — at this highly unusual supermarket-sur-mer whose car-park backed onto a black sand beach. (On our roadtrips we often used to cut some eucalyptus leaves and store them in the back to maintain the pleasantness of the in-car aromas.)

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Pepys 1660 (5)

We went to the Sun Tavern in expectation of a dinner, where we had sent us only two trenchers-full of meat, at which we were very merry, while in came Mr. Wade and his friend Capt. Moyse (who told us of his hopes to get an estate merely for his name’s sake), and here we staid till seven at night, I winning a quart of sack of Shaw that one trencherfull that was sent us was all lamb and he that it was veal. I by having but 3d. in my pocket made shift to spend no more, whereas if I had had more I had spent more as the rest did, so that I see it is an advantage to a man to carry little in his pocket.

(Thursday February 16, 1660)

This little piece of wisdom occurred to Sam before he started conducting himself in ways which require a gentelman to carry a certain amount of efectivo around with him in the evenings.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Wall Street Money Never Sleeps (2010)

Money might however be advised to down a demitasse or two before sitting through Oliver Stone's Wall Street refresher.

As you'd expect Shia LaSnooze is present in a number of the scenes which feel like attending a late afternoon business meeting on Friday.

Cast as a sensitive version of the dealing room greed-merchant, his underpowered aura works quite nicely in the (almost) affecting scenes with Carey Mulligan — and Gordon Gekko is surely tailor-made to play off well against an impressionable straight guy — but it's completely out of place the moment he's required to swing his dick with the really big players in the boardroom.

To some extent the strand of the story through which Michael Douglas struts maliciously is predominantly engaging, though Gekko does seem to have been given an awful lot of exposition to be getting on with (Tulipmania etc.), such that his character sometimes comes across suspiciously as Oliver Stone in a rubber suit. The old sheep in wolf's clothing ploy.

Stone does actually show up in a brief cameo. And one of the biggest jolts of the evening came with the sudden uncredited appearance of Charlie Sheen, briefly reprising the role of Bud Fox from the original Wall Street. (Well, in truth he was reprising the role of Charlie Harper, the only one he seems capable of in either art or life these days. )

The whole thing smacks of an exercise the director conceived of having read and more or less understood* a series of well-researched articles about the crash of 2008. So what you have is a kind of dramatisation of those events with some pretty sketchy protagonists, who only really come into their own in the final third once Gekko — who up until then is like a stand-alone dramatic personage loosely attached to this chapuz of a tale — flares out a bit, and the rest of the cast are left with the part of the story where character takes precedence over the rather didactic plot.

Bizarrely Stone seems to think that this rather limp emotional surge entitles him to shoot a concluding, credit-overlaid scene that had me wondering whether I'd just finished watching some sort of romantic comedy.

Grade: B

* Stone can't help showing off the buzzword he's picked up from all this reading: moral hazard. Several characters use it in circumstances you just know nobody really would, until finally Stone decides to fill in the less erudite members of his audience by setting up a meet cute at a book signing between Gekko and a little old lady for whom this term is a bit of a mystery.

Michael Douglas keeps mentioning cancer as well.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Behold, the acoustic dumbphone

I was catching up with Digital Planet the other day and came across a feature about one of the most ludicrous technologies to emerge from closeted academia in recent years.

Some Cambridge University boffins have written a piece of software that purports to transform an ordinary cellphone into a highly-desirable touch-screen smartphone.

Text-based entry is replaced by some little icons. and when the user pushes these in imitation of standard iPhone use, the handset's microphone listens in for the resulting noise and can (apparently) accurately determine which part of the screen was touched. Instant swankiness?

But hold on, you can't just gently tap these icons with the fleshy tip of your finger, you'll quite often need some sort of stylus or at least fingernails like our favourite teller at BAC.

Steve Jobs must be chuckling. After a few days of using one of these enhanced Nokias the first thing you're likely to do is go out and buy an iPhone. He should fund these guys.

The possibilities are extensive, the BBC guys suggested enthusiastically. OK we may just be talking about the market for impecunious, thick-fingered folk with accessibility issues, but let's not put a premature damper on another great British invention.

Still not underwhelmed? You can catch a full demo here.

Stephens and Catherwood (3) - Punta Gorda

Having quickly exhausted the possibilities of Belize City, Stephens and his limey sidekick embark on a short steamboat ride down the coast to Punta Gorda. This vessel...

"...was the last remnant of the stock in trade of a great Central American agricultural association, formed for building cities, raising the price of land, accommodating emigrants, and improvement generally. On the rich plains of the province of Vera Paz they had established the site of New Liverpool, which only wanted houses and a population to become a city." *

One of the tag-alongs on board was a man of the cloth, who duly asked permission to inflict some rites of passage on the local inhabitants, then predominantly Carib indians. The latter were initially suspicious of this padre, for he was unable to speak a word of Spanish, for them the one true badge of orthodoxy, but in due course "when they saw in him his gown and surplice, with the burning incense, all distrust vanished." More fool them.

The opportunities for holy wedlock were thin on the ground because most of PG's menfolk were out and about engaged in fishing and other bread-winning activities, so the main custom of the day presented itself as a long line of women with babes in arms. Stephens ruminates on his own roping-in that day:

"I became godfather to a Carib child; fortunately, its mother was an honest woman, and the father stood by at the time. In all probability I shall never have much to do with its training; and I can only hope that in due season it will multiply the name and make it respectable amongst the Caribs."

* This detail reminded me of a passage I read earlier this week in Jon Lee Anderson's biography of Che Guevara. The soon-to-be-born revolutionary's mother had just eloped with Guevara Lynch to the rather leafy frontier district of Misiones, funding her new husband's dream of owning a Yerba Mate plantation out of her inheritance. There they got about on the Ibera, "a Victorian paddle-wheel steamer that had done prior service carrying British colonials up the Nile." Are you thinking what I'm thinking? How the heck did it get across the pond?

Room in Rome (2010)

I have sought out and enjoyed almost every one of Julio Medem's films, and have been wont to consider him one of my favourite contemporary directors of arthouse movies. Until now that is.

In his first major release for some years (2001's Sex and Lucia was his last really memorable movie), a Spanish woman — perhaps a wealthy man's fugitive wife — persuades an openly straight Russian girl to spend the night with her in her hotel room: a set concocted with the sort of icky grandiloquence you'd normally expect to find in the flicks of less subtle film-makers.

I can't really say much more because after about 30 minutes we decided we simply couldn't live with such elevated levels of ambient pretentiousness.

In a sense this is a kind of sapphic Before Sunrise, and I am sure there will be people prepared to go the distance, who will perhaps encounter in it depth and sensitivity, as well as a measure of eroticism (where we saw only the glibness of art porn).

But this is a movie which lost me before it had even revealed its basic intentions. For having given us only the barest, at-a-distance intro to his female protagonists Medem lays it on way too thick and way too early with Jocelyn Pook's In The Mood For Love-style score, and the drama and portent of this tune served only to remind me how little I was engaged with the characters at this point.

Grade: B- (for the first 33% at least.)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Pepys 1660 (4)

"This morning I lay long abed, and then to my office, where I read all the morning my Spanish book of Rome."

(Saturday, February 11, 1660)

Ok, it was a Saturday, but life never seemed to be all that stressful in the London office of the 1660s. If that was how his weekend started, this was how it was to conclude:

"So to bed, where my wife and I had some high words upon my telling her that I would fling the dog which her brother gave her out of window if he [dirtied] the house any more."

(Sunday, February 12, 1660)

Perhaps we need to bear in mind here that Elizabeth's brother was a sponger and a wastrel.

Monday, November 15, 2010

A quiet spot

A lovely pair of pics V took in Cherry's favourite spot in Antigua recently.

November is our own favourite month in Guatemala, breezy and florid, with enough mositure still in the ground to put a damper on those swirling clouds of dust.

Stephens and Catherwood (2) "The last place made"

It was full moonlight when the boy mounted the deck and gave us the pilot's welcome. I could not distinguish his featurs, but I could see that he was not white; and his voice was as soft as a woman's.

After eighteen days of "boisterous weather" the Mary Ann passed alongside Lighthouse Caye and approached 'Balize', at which point her captain invited on board a lad of about sixteen, described above by Stephens. He was the son of a professional pilot engaged by a large, mahogany-laden brig in St George's Bay.

The next morning the passengers would disembark at a warehouse owned by the evocatively-named Mr Coffin, and shortly thereafter John Lloyd Stephens himself was partaking of what was locally known as the 'second breakfast' at the home of a merchant.

The gentleman sat on one side of the table and his lady on the other. At the head was a British officer, and opposite him a mulatto; on his left was another officer, and opposite him also a mulatto. By chance a place was made for me between the two coloured gentlemen. Some of my countrymen, perhaps, would have hesitated about taking it, but I did not; both were well dressed, well educated, and polite. They talked of their mahogany works, of England, hunting, horses, ladies, and wine; and before I had been an hour in Balize I learned that the great work of practical amalgamation, the subject of so much angry controversy in the States, had been going on quietly for generations ; that colour was considered mere matter of taste ; and that some of the most respectable inhabitants had black wives and mongrel children, whom they educated with as much care, and made money for with as much zeal, as if their skins were perfectly white.

I hardly knew whether to be shocked or amused at this condition of society; and, in the meantime, joined Mr. Catherwood, to visit the house offered by Mr. Coffin. It was situated on the opposite side of the river, and the road to it was ankle-deep in mud. At the gate was a large puddle, which we cleared by a jump; the house was built on piles about two feet high, and underneath was water nearly a foot deep. We ascended on a plank to the sill of the door, and entered a large room occupying the whole of the first floor, and perfectly empty. The upper story was tenanted by a family of negroes; in the yard was a house swarming with negroes; and all over, in the yard and in front, were picturesque groups of little negroes of both sexes, and naked as they were born. We directed the room to be swept and our luggage brought there; and, as we left the house, we remembered Captain Hampton’s description before our arrival, and felt the point of his concluding remark, that Balize was the last place made.

John Lloyd Stephens was nothing less than what we English refer to as a 'good bloke'. But he was also a bloke of his times, and although he would — famously — go on to accommodate into his worldview the notion that the great Mayan ruins he and Catherwood catalogued had been constructed by the rather tattered indigenous communities living nearby, he was playing to his less enlightened stateside readers a bit when he reported that the brightest and most improving pupils at the negro schools behind Government House were "those who had in them the most white blood."

Belize, not to become a British crown colony until 1862, was very much ahead of the curve when it came to emancipation. Only a couple of months before the Mary Ann's arrival, the condition of the black portion of the portion of the population (4000/6000) had been improved, legally at least. It had anyway, Stephens notes, always been...

...better than that of plantation slaves; even before the act for the general abolition of slavery throughout the British dominions, they were actually free; and on the 31st of August, 1839, a year before the time appointed by the act, by a general meeting and agreement of proprietors, even the nominal yoke of bondage was removed. The event was celebrated, says the Honduras Almanac, by religious ceremonies, processions, bands of music, and banners with devices: “The sons of Ham respect the memory of Wilberforce,” - ” The Queen, God bless her,” – ” M*Donald for ever,” – ” Civil and religious liberty all over the world.” Nelson Schaw, ” a snowdrop of the first water,” continues the Almanac, ” advanced to his Excellency, Colonel M*Donald and spoke as follows: ‘ On the part of my emancipated brothers and sisters, I venture to approach your Excellency, to entreat you to thank our most gracious Queen for all that she has done for us. We will pray for her ; we will fight for her ; and, if it be necessary, we will die for her. We thank your Excellency for all you have done for us. God bless your Excellency 1 God bless her Excellency, Mrs. McDonald, and all the Royal family! Come, my countrymen, hurrah ! Dance, ye black rascals ! the flag of England flies over your heads, and every rustle of its folds knocks the fetters off the limbs of the poor slave . Hubbabboo Cochalorum Gee ! ”

The President's special emissary also pays a visit to the barracks where he finds a regiment of black soldiers, many of whom form the remnant of an old Jamaica unit which had BEEN enlisted at the English recruiting stations in West Africa. "They carry themselves proudly, call themselves the 'Queen's Gentle-men,' and look down upon the 'niggers'."

Stephens, himself a lawyer, was to find men and women of mixed race amongst the judges and jurors at the Grand Court. It would be interesting to know whether the racial categories he uses in his report — sambo, mulatto etc. — were imported by the visitors, or whether they were still formal and socially-significant distinctions in the Belize City of 1839. The terminology employed by the warlike red-coats at the barracks suggests that it was still some way from complete harmony amongst the various demographics and their skin tones, as indeed it is today.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Pepys 1660 (3)

"And about 9 o’clock I went away homewards, and in Fleet Street, received a great jostle from a man that had a mind to take the wall, which I could not help?"

(Wednesday February 8, 1660)

In Britain we may drive on the left, but we stand on the right. On escalators it has become such a habit of mine that I was bemused by the trouble it caused me on my round-the-world trip this year.

Chaotic encounters on London's streets, such as the one Sam relates above (with that delightful self-examining addition of a question mark) were soon to be a thing of the past, as the convention was established that rather than asserting the wall if one could, one should always endeavour to pass on the right.

Here in Antigua Guatemala taking the wall often results in a face full of wrought iron balcony. The one piece of unstated local etiquette for pedestrian traffic that I am aware of, is that the male member of a couple should always walk on the street side of the banqueta, presumably so that he might assume the risk posed by Guatemala's drivers and wet season puddles...though it also probably spares him a few bumps on the forehead.

South of the Border (2009)

In this documentary, written by Tariq Ali, but essentially presented as the work of Oliver Stone, the renegade film director meets the bane of Fox News and NTN24 and attempts to get beyond the big American warning sign saying 'dictator'.

Chávez is shown as the leader of a popular rebellion in South America which has chosen as its targets American IMF-led imperialism and predatory capitalism in general.

The most exposition-heavy parts of the movie look at the 2002 coup-attempt in Venezuela and the US role in this. The failed golpe is held up as a credible explanation for Chávez's subsequent bolshiness and authoritarian tendencies.

Stone then goes on to meet several other South American leaders including (poignantly) the Kirchners, as well as Evo, Correa, Lula, Lugo and the younger Castro, all of which are presented as the support crew for Venezuelan-led Bolivarianism. Strength in numbers is the new circumstance of South America's new anti-elite, Stone suggests.

Now, standing up to US bulleying is probably a good thing. But the makers of this film have clearly fallen into the trap of suggesting that many of the significant issues facing the region — poverty, development, impunity, drugs, political freedom — are all somehow just the effluent from a misguided US foreign policy. This smacks of American exceptionalism in its reversed-out, leftist guise.

The end result is a movie which isn't really interested in the particular local narratives and their considerable variation across the spectrum of Bolivarianist indignation. The target market for the film is clearly the mass of open-minded but ignorant Americans who might otherwise be wondering if Evo's breakfast habits mean they can get a real high from their morning cocoa. It's a shame that it presents an essentially fair, but still rather partial view of the 'revolution' taking shape in the bottom half of the hemisphere.

That said, fans of larger-than-life Hugo — especially those like myself who are more inclined to question his political achievements on the ground — will enjoy this unbalanced movie primarily for the portrait it provides of this sincere if occasionally oafish Presidente.

I particularly loved the part where Stone encourages him to ride a kid's bicycle around the site of his childhood 'mud hut', and when said bike duly crumbles depositing his large frame into said mud, Chávez jumps up with a nervous laugh and exclaims "oh no, I'll have to pay for that!".

Grade: B (+-)

Tikal Futura shoot-out update

As predicted on this blog, a full investigation of the balacera last September in the car park of the Gran Tikal Futura has unearthed a version of events significantly at variance with the account provided by the PNC in the immediate aftermath.

Specifically it is now known that there was no actual exchange of fire between the police and the narcs, and that all three fatalities — two cops and an evangelical pastor — died from bullets fired from PNC weapons. Basically two independent police units ran into the car park and opened up on each other. The god squadie was apparently caught in this cross-fire.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Last Snorebender (2010)

M. Night Shyamalan has taken a much loved children's animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender (9.3 on IMDB compared to say 8.3 for James Cameron's Avatar) and produced one of the most daringly awful live-action adventures of modern times. (4.5)

Nevertheless, English blokes of a certain age and with a certain commitment to keeping up their schoolboy humour, will manage to squeeze a drop or two of entertainment out of lines of dialogue which include "he's a bender". (About of third of the way in, someone also shouts "all benders should be dead", a sentiment one is surely inclined to agree with by then.)

Apparently this was intended as the first installment of a trilogy, but it must surely go the way of The Golden Compass, which it resembles in some respects, once you discount the quality of the narrative, the acting and the visual effects. In a production so excruciating, it's a wonder that Noah Ringer stands out, but he does, for his is one of the most irksome natural auras ever committed to celluloid. Perhaps it was the persistent botheration of his performance that kept us awake, because the contributions of the other young stars are sheer sedative.

Grade: C(-)

Predators (2010)

A proper popcorn movie, some way short of being either a stand-alone sequel or a remake, 2010's Predators is essentially a homage to a concept which had lost its way a bit.

In a formal sense it could even be said to be an improvement on the 1987 film, though it's hard to see how it can be fully enjoyed without first (fully) appreciating the Arnie original. Fortunately we're totally on board with this: in fact the predator is probably V's favourite movie monster. (Here's one trying to blend in on Venice Beach a couple of years ago.)

Adrien Brody's transformation into a shrewd (though a bit too all-knowing) action star is convincing. The yakuza and the cartel enforcer are also welcome additions to the mix. Danny Trejo has been Navajas and Machete in previous Robert Rodriguez movies, and it would appear that the producer used his sway to get his protégé into his latest B-movie retread, this time under the alias of Cuchillo.

Grade: B++

Stephens and Catherwood (1)

"Being intrusted by the President with a Special Confidential Mission to Central America, on Wednesday the third of October, 1839, I embarked on board the British brig Mary Ann, Hampton, master, for the Bay of Honduras."

This week I not only discovered that I could add John Lloyd Stephens (1805-52) as a Facebook friend, but also that his Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan has been serialised as an online journal, starting with his arrival in 'Balize' in the autumn of 1839.

Anyone with the most minimal interest in this region ought to at least take a peak at the four volumes comprising Stephens's account of his two expeditions to Central America, each time accompanied by the British architect and artist Frederick Catherwood. I discovered these two wonderfully urbane gents at univesity and have periodically returned to the Incidents for a spot of vicarious adventure.

The original expedition might have kick-started the modern profession of Mayanism, but its original fact-finding intent was not explicitly archaeological, for the secret and confidential nature of the mission had more to do with finding out on behalf of the US Government who exactly might be in charge of its equivalent down here. As Stephens explains...

"Three great parties at that time distracted Central America: that of Morazan, the former president of the Republic, in San Salvador, of Ferrera, in Honduras, and of Carrera in Guatemala..then regarded as the head of a troop of banditti, a robber and an assassin; his followers were called the Cachurecos (meaning false coin)."

Stephens and Catherwood would soon be trying what the Canonigo Castillo in Guatemala "called the 'national dish', fregoles, or black beans fried, which fortunately for our subsequent travels, we 'cottoned' to at once." Don't we all?

Another familiar impression was the one Stephens formed on the state of Guatemala's most important highways. I've quoted this before, but it can bear a reprise:

"This is the great high road to the city of Guatemala, which has always been a place of distinction in Spanish America. Almost all the travel and merchandise from Europe passes over it; and our guide said that the reason it was so bad was because it was traversed by so many mules. In some countries this would be a reason for making it better; but it was pleasant to find that the people to whom I was accredited were relieved from one of the sources of contention at home, and did not trouble themselves with the complicated questions attendant upon internal improvements."

Welcome to Guateliving, as someone used to say!

Anyway, tomorrow we'll yank the pair back to the harbour of Belize City, where their adventure began, and where Stephens had to come to terms with the first great marvel of the isthmus, that tiny metropolis's fairly advanced state of racial integration.

Friday, November 12, 2010

We are all born divergent thinkers

A really excellent, riveting presentation by Sir Ken Robinson on how our native creativity tends to be educated out of us. (Thanks to Joel for the link.)

Here's Sir Ken in action again at TED.

The nativity play anecdote and its implications reminded me a bit of the following q&a session we once had with some of V's nephews. One came up with what seemed to us to be the perfect response:

— Y tu, que vas a ser cuando seas grande?
— Yo? adulto.

He was indeed the youngest and clearly the only one not unduly influenced by an impression of what we the incumbent adultos wanted to hear.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Pepys 1660 (2)

"So we met with an acquaintance of his in the walks, and went and drank, where I ate some bread and butter, having ate nothing all day, while they were by chance discoursing of Marriot, the great eater, so that I was, I remember, ashamed to eat what I would have done."

(February 4, 1660)

Food Porn (2)

Más tiburón...this time in a honey and Marmite glaze, served with stir-fry vegetables and sushi rice, al estilo Chapin.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Guatemala's Jan-Aug homicide rate by administration

Looks like Ex-Prez managed somehow to reverse the trend for a while...though the Bishop was biggie. (April 1998)

(Thanks to Scott for this one.)

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Food Porn (1)

Not so much shark fin soup as shark tail soup — a dish which occurred to us after our regular Monday tiburón delivery left us with a few off-cuts from the narrower end of the fish.

We started off by creating a vegetable broth with some carrots, onions, red peppers, French beans, leeks, celery, star anis and coriander.

Once these were tender we added some Thai green curry mix and half a glass of coconut milk.

After this had simmered for a while, we added our shark meat and shortly after that a couple of generous tablespoons of Thai fish sauce plus a few squirts of lime juice.

Very much
de último in went some chow mein noodles and then some fresh mint was sprinkled over the soup as it was served.

Looks like this is going to be a regular feature now...

Monday, November 08, 2010

Monsters (2010)

The big interest here for us was of course the fact that the movie was largely shot 'on the run' in Mexico, Costa Rica and Guatemala. Several black-clad PNC amateur thesps put in an appearance and in one scene shot at the Petén frontier no effort has been made to obscure the sign saying Salida de Guatemala.

Which is a little odd, because this geographically-scrambled road trip is supposed to be taking place in the parched northern deserts of Mexico. Yet there's hardly a cactus to be seen here; in fact the jungle (and the Mayan ruins) run right up to the border with Texas.

Fortunately the cognitive dissonance this creates, along with the basic premise — that a returning NASA probe crashed landed south of the border six years ago infecting the area with an alien species of giant glowing cephalopods which hatch every six months or so and have to be controlled using hellfire missiles and other airborne ordnance — doesn't spoil one's appreciation of the rather more diffuse set of ideas that the film is really about.

Monsters was written and directed by British documentary-maker Gareth Edwards, who also did the cinematography and visual effects. It is in essence a mood piece, a rather trippy take on the trip he and his little cast and crew made across Central America recruiting locations and extras as they presented themselves. The impressive artfulness of Edwards's visuals contrasts strongly with the apparent artlessness of the script.

Now you might think that a more structured and polished screenplay is one production cost which might have been added without shunting the movie out of the low budget category, but there's a disarming candor in this non-fiction specialist's approach to dialogue. Sam and Andrew are in some ways the classic mismatched road movie pair-up, yet their interactions defy expectation in a number of ways. Specifically, unlike most movie characters they seem blissfully unaware of the need to emote in ways which resonate with and ultimately manipulate the emotions of the viewing audience. They don't scream when we think we would, they don't even ask the obvious questions of their predicament we think we would, and I found it hard to chalk this up alongside the movie's other minor faults.

Andrew O'Hehir at Salon described Monsters as Predators meets Sin Nombre. We felt it was could just as easily be described as Cloverfield meets Y Tu Mamá También. The genre-bending has been handled in a low-key, less knowing way than one has become accustomed to i.e. it's more like the subtle androgyny of the vampire girl in Let The Right One In than full-on Rio de Janeiro ladyboy!

The subtext, such as it is, is similarly submerged. At one point I spotted some graffiti on a wall decrying the 5000 deaths which had needlessly resulted from the combined US-Mexican armed response to this extraterrestrial 'infection'. This is roughly one sixth of the total death-toll from the 'War on Drugs' which has raged in more or less the same zona de cuarentena in northern Mexico these past three years.

Grade: B++

Friday, November 05, 2010

Keynes and Hayek on a rap junket


To roughly the same extent that Secretos de Cocina is dire, this show on Canal 3 is actually pretty good. (Albeit heavily sponsored by all the gunk you don't really want to be consuming in a land so blessed with fresh ingredients.)

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Tooth and claw

Neither of us eat a lot of red meat. I won't refuse it when dining out and we do sometimes have it at home, especially during the dry seasons when I've dusted down the barbecue.

But the majority of our meals here are vegetable and carb-based, and we eat fish three or four times a week. (Generally grouper and shark.) This is a longish explanation for why we weren't tucking into a traditional fiambre on Monday.

For most of last week we were finishing off our curtido, and just happened to pass the Carnicería San Jose opposite the AECID, where the pint-sized proprietor has been treating V to his doting eye for almost thirty years.

We wandered in and later emerged with several chunks of carne de res, which we duly fried with yaki-nori (strangely less expensive in London than in Tokyo), which I suppose serves to lull us into thinking we're not really eating red meat after all.

The butcher on the sexta avenida also sells some rather excellent slabs of high cacao-content drinking chocolate from Mixco, and insists that it is superior to the San Juan del Obispo product, "que solo tiene el nombre."

Monday is also the day that Don A comes round with our weekly ration of tiburón. I used to wonder just how fresh it was, because he appears to have walked for miles with it in his woven sack unrefrigerated, and anyway back in Britain Monday isn't considered the ideal day for going to the fishmonger. Fortunately we now have an professional fisherman from Tampa in the neighbourhood and his expert nose has declared Don A's shark pretty fresh by any standards: "two days since the catch, at most".

V's sister immediately offered up some recipe advice and appeared a little put out when we explained that we like our shark to be fried in olve oil and sprinkled with fresh herbs. There would seem to be a belief in these parts that pescado looks its best covered in breadcrumbs, but generally we only do this with very thin cuts of fish where the migajado helps prevent disintegration.

Another dangerous culinary fallacy cropped up recently on Secretos de Cocina, quite possibly the most cringeworthy cooking programme on the planet. Jorge 'Coque' Calderón is undoubtedly a proper professional chef (and a significant improvment on the mudo he replaced on this show), but his hands are completely tied by the need to prepare every dish with a major dollop of some glutinous processed salsa from Hellman's, Malher or Natura's. His less than impressive assistant had our eyebrows in an elevated position this week, when she turned on a tap before announcing "Hay que lavar bien los champiñones..."

Here's a really big secreto de cocina: don't ever wash mushrooms*. If they must be cleaned, put them in a bowl with some flour and shake vigorously, gently rubbing down any that have managed to remain soiled. Cover them in water and you might as well be eating the rubber soles of your shoes...just soggier and with less flavour.

A few days ago V caught sight of the pic I used for my guest post on AntiguaDailyPhoto.com back in August 2009: the ejotes envueltos, a dish we have somehow neglected to prepare again since then. And so, armed with our new electric whisk, we had another bash at it one lunchtime last week, this time with added spaghetti.

The white queso seco, tipo Zacapa — much favoured by Antigua's street vendors — is an acceptable analogue of Italian parmesan. Being European I tend to take my coagulated milk protein seriously, but I've learned the hard way in Guatemala that authentic local queso is generally cheaper and tastier than anything one finds taking the name of a foreign regional cheese in vain: parmesan, peccorino etc.

That said, we do like to intercept the yoghurt van that delivers once a week at Doña I's shop, because its occupant sells us 2.5lb bags of 'mozzarella' (marca Lactosa) for just Q55. This ability to snag wholesale prices from parked vehicles is just one of the advantages of living in close proximity to a well-stocked local tienda. I've mentioned before that Doña I is also prepared to act as a kind of remote agent by shopping in the market for certain foodstuffs on her client's behalf.

* That is if you can find any champiñones around here that don't cost more than cocaine.

Adding value

A somewhat bunkered-down gringo of our acquaintance came to us recently with a tale filled with foreboding.

On a recent Tapachusma run he had come across a compatriot who claimed to be "in the security services". While most of this individual's closest colleagues were now dead or missing, he attested to a durability which he put down to his continuing ability to "add value".

This apparently included informing complete strangers on a bus that the powers that be in the US are planning to eliminate 90% of the population as a last ditch solution to the energy and debt crises, leaving just a thousand families and their enormous pile of loot.

He also described in some detail how the charges necessary to bring down the twin towers were prepared some two years in advance of 9-11. (Which I suppose means during the Clinton administration, before the Neocons had their fingers on the detonators.)

"What the hell is really going on?," I ask myself. If Moses wrote the US Constitution, does that mean that it's some sort of Jewish conspiracy, or was he really from Jutland?

Keep watching the chemtrails folks.

(Unfortunately Antigua seems to be off the freedom flight path. We have our black choppers though.)


An acquaintance of ours in Antigua recently announced his intention to spend December 21, 2012 at Tikal, ground-zero for the apocalyptically-minded it would seem.

You'd think that when it comes to the end of the world, just about anywhere would do — though Tikal is pretty scenic.

It also struck me as odd that this particular pessimist is usually so ready in his criticism of the dangerous escatological tendencies within American protestantism.

Does Tikal Futura count?

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet - 2

When I was in Tokyo last May, a Japanese friend told me how his nation had, rather like the Brits, maintained warm and fuzzy feelings towards the Portuguese for centuries, because it was the ships of that small Iberian nation only who were permitted to return during the era of Japan's self-imposed isolation from the outside world.

In fact it was the Dutch not the Portuguese who maintained this precarious commercial tie with the locked-down Tokugawa Shogunate.

The Dutch came to Nagasaki for Japanese copper. Each season a handful of them were allowed to disembark at Dejima, a purpose-built artificial island in the city's harbour, roughly the size of half a football pitch. (200x80 paces with around 25 techos.)

There they resided with their Malay slaves, generally interacting only with locals belonging to hereditary classes of officials, interpreters and courtesans. Dejima was linked to the mainland by a bridge, sealed at both ends by locked gates. Only the most senior of the Dutch could cross this to the Nagsaki itself, where they negotiated with the Shogun's local governor every year.

The novel takes us first to the Dejima of 1799, when just two Dutch ships were permitted to turn up there each year. This marks the start of the period when, for fifteen years, Dejima was the last place on earth where the Dutch flag was flying, as the British had overrun the south-east Asian colonies and the Netherlands themselves had been occupied by Napoleon.

Dejima is one of three enclosed locations which define the action of Mitchell's novel, the others being a hilltop nunnery and an intruding British ship. Yet it is arguably this tiny trading post that provides the raison d'être for Mitchell's experimentation with the historical novel, for the peculiar nature of this cultural and commercial bottleneck between east and west underlies almost everything that the book has to say of interest to the modern reader.

The location is in a sense a crucible of modern, progressive ideas, different aspects of which Mitchell embodies in his lead characters, such as Dr Marinus and Jacob de Zoet himself, who is tellingly provided with a prim and pious protestant outlook in spite of his obvious rationalism and latent liberalism. It also affords the author opportunities for some of his best comic moments, such as the bold statement of the governor of Nagasaki that coffee would never 'take hold' in Japan.

Yet it's altogether easier to pack these limited, claustrophobic enviroments with stereotypes than it would be if his gaze extended much beyond the land bridge into Nagasaki itself. Mitchell lived in Japan for eight years and married a local girl, which is why I naturally expect him to have the same developed fascination with life on the ground there as I do, yet what we mostly get is a rather hackneyed environment occupied by the inscrutable easterners of western cliché.

There is one extraordinary chapter opening (location 6176 on my Kindle edition) where Mitchell delivers a much more voracious and yet carefully-observed account of Nagasaki life, set within a top-notch prose poem. But I found myself interpreting this as a planned compensation for the novel's pervasive sketchiness.

The depraved cultish convent of Abbot Enomoto on the other hand is probably intended to resonate strongly with modern Japanese pop-culture sensibilities and not as a realist representation of Shinto heresies of the time. One critic has compared the abortive Samurai rescue mission to a take from anime, and the chapter covering Orito's escape attempt read like the action within a fantasy computer game for me.

The story of H.M.S. Phaeton, the Royal Navy 5th-rate ship of the line which engages Dejima in the book's third section has been lifted from the historical record, albeit with a degree of temporal displacement. This incident may help answer the question which has often occurred to me — why it was the American fleet under Admiral Perry which ended Japan's isolation and not the British.