June 2011 Reading: Life on Air, Ransom, Bel Canto

Life on Air by David Attenborough (2002)
I don’t read a lot of autobiographies, as I tend to find fictional lives more interesting than real ones.  However, if there is one person whose life story is worth reading, it has to be Sir David Attenborough.  I’m going to keep this brief, because when it comes to His Legendariness, I have a tendency to gush.  I’m also still a bit upset that my brother recently had the chance to interview him – my DA obsession doesn’t allow for gracious acceptance of said sibling’s ridiculous good fortune, I’m afraid.  I’m bitter.
So, in a nutshell, the book is as engaging, fascinating, and full of enthusiasm for life as the man himself, and provides a real insight into the behind-the-scenes world both of the programmes so familiar to Attenborough geeks such as myself, and of the BBC’s early years.  He is a natural storyteller, with a gentle sense of humour, a keen eye for detail (he must have kept meticulous diaries or else he has superhuman powers of recall) and that peculiarly British regard for the absurd.
Attenborough is a man who has spent his life doing what he loves, and though in his modest way he would probably put this down to luck, his autobiography reveals the awesome extent of his talent, though of course in a typically unassuming way.  Now I’ll finish this before I really get carried away.
Ransom by David Malouf (2009)
Just to further damage my street cred, let me reiterate that I am not only an avid fan of natural history, I am also what my dear brothers so charmingly describe as a ‘Greek geek’.  Yes, I have dabbled in Ancient Greek in my time, I’m not ashamed to admit it.  I’m not quite as keen on Homer as I am on Attenborough, but I did watch the whole of the film Troy through splayed fingers, cringing at every inconsistency and ranting indignantly to my somewhat embarrassed siblings about Hollywood’s butchery of the Iliad (ok, perhaps I can see where they’re coming from on the name-calling front.  But honestly: if you kill off Menelaus, the whole bloody war is POINTLESS.)  So it was with interest and perhaps a little trepidation that I started to read Malouf’s novel, which tells the story of King Priam’s attempts to reclaim the body of his son Hector from the Greek camp.
Malouf’s prose is damn good: lofty and visceral in equal measures, and unlike That Film, he doesn’t shy away from the presence of the gods in the narrative.  Achilles’ divine parentage is made clear from the start:
            “The sea surface bellies and glistens, a lustrous sliver-blue – a membrane stretched to a fine transparency where once for nine changes of the moon, he had hung curled in a dream of pre-existence and was rocked and comforted.”
It is no mean feat to produce sentences that are as exquisite as the original, although I will admit that it took me a long time to get into the story. At first, I felt a bit like I was merely reading another translation of the Iliad, even though the passages are invented.  I just didn’t really see the need for this novel.  However, his motivation is neatly laid out in the Afterword:
“Its primary interest is in storytelling itself – why stories are told and why we need to hear them, how stories get changed in the telling – and much of what it has to tell are ‘untold tales’ found only in the margins of earlier writers.”
This in itself is nothing new: stories are told and retold ad infinitum, and some would argue that no story is truly original.  What shines through, however, is Malouf’s respect for his sources.  Unlike Atwood’s Penelopiad, another novel which draws on Homer’s stories, Malouf maintains the nobility of his characters, refusing to modernise them or subject their actions to our ethical standards.  This may alienate us from his characters, but it also makes Ransom a much more plausible part, in a literary sense, of the story of Troy.
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (2001)
This is the first book I read on my new Kindle (a birthday present from the boy which left me slightly shame-faced about the oh-so-thoughtful pot plant I’d got him for his special day a week earlier).  As a technophobe who loves the physical feel of books, and of course, ‘that old book smell’ that we literary types bang on about, I wasn’t sure that the Kindle was for me, and I have to admit that it did sit in my drawer for a couple of weeks while the boy asked me awkward questions about how I was enjoying my gift.  Finally, I cracked, and devoured Patchett’s novel in electronic form in about two days.
First, a word about the Kindle: it is amazing.  It is lighter than most books, you can hold it and ‘turn the pages’ with one hand, you can bookmark passages, and there is an inbuilt dictionary feature which allows you to read pretentious literature and almost understand it (Bel Canto is not in this category, by the way).  There are probably many other things it can do, but for the moment, that’s enough for me – I’m sold.
As for the novel itself, the premise is based on the Lima hostage situation of 1996.  In an unnamed South American country, the guests of a reception at the Vice President’s residence are taken hostage by a terrorist organisation.  The hostages include the head of a major Japanese corporation, Katsumi Hosokawa, his translator, Gen, and the opera singer who had been hired to sing for Hosokawa as a birthday present, Roxane Coss, along with various other foreign businessmen and diplomats, and of course, the Vice President himself.
Patchett was inspired by what she saw as the operatic nature of the Lima crisis, and took this as a starting point, throwing herself into the world of opera and building her story around its melodramatic narrative structures and grandiose themes.
Gen’s role in the scenario is an interesting one: as a translator, he provides a vital link between the terrorists and the hostages, and between the hostages themselves.  The theme of communication emerges as one of supreme importance, and links back to opera’s power to convey meaning without necessarily understanding the language.  There is a moment when Roxane sings in Czech, moving her audience to tears, and only Gen can tell that she doesn’t understand the words.
Patchett’s enthusiasm for music and opera (which she only really started appreciating while doing research for the novel) gives her prose a lyrical elegance that is impressive, and the scenes of interaction between the hostages and the terrorists allow her to flirt with the intriguing notion of Stockholm Syndrome.
Ironically, the only problem in this melodious novel is one of pitch: Patchett’s characters are neither flamboyantly larger-than-life nor realistically nuanced, and as a result, they fall flat.  As dramatic as the situation is, I found it difficult to really care about the characters, and their various intrigues and romances felt a little formulaic.

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