Saturday, 27 July 2019

Marilyn and Me

By Ji-min Lee
The Korean War (1950-1953) is commonly referred to in the Anglophone world as ‘The Forgotten War’, which apart from the more obvious question ‘Why?’, also prompts the query ‘By whom?’ 
  The ‘Why?’ has several credible explanations, foremost among which is that, sandwiched between the euphoric rectitude of the ‘Just War’ victory over the forces of evil in World War II, and the nadir of the moral bankruptcy and humiliation of ‘The War That Wasn’t Won’ of Vietnam, the Korean hostilities have been consigned to a footnote in American history. This is to underestimate grossly its importance: not only as the first major conflict and carve-up along Cold War lines, which still resonates today in the Trump administration’s agitation over North Korea’s nuclear capability; but also because of the sheer devastation it caused the war-torn country. Between three and four million people lost their lives, as many as 70% of whom were civilians. Destruction was particularly acute in the North, which was subjected to over two years of sustained American bombing, including the first use of napalm. Roughly 25% of Korea’s prewar population was killed. Damage was also widespread in the South, where Seoul changed hands four times. Furthermore, technically, the war has never ended: the fighting stopped when North Korea, China and the U.S. reached an armistice in 1953, but South Korea did not agree to it, and no formal peace treaty was ever signed. Ironically, the Forgotten War is still going on.
  As for the ‘By whom?’, it would appear the answer is ‘Everyone, except the North Koreans.’ Largely elided from American historical discourse, and too painful to be passed on to younger generations of South Koreans by those who survived, in the popular consciousness the most significant fact about the Korean War is that for four days in 1954, Marilyn Monroe entertained American troops stationed there.
  All of which preamble is only important for our purposes here because this war and its aftermath is the world inhabited by the heroine and first-person narrator of this novel, Alice J. Kim – real name Kim Ae-sun. The novel opens in Seoul in February 1954, just over six months after the armistice, but with military tensions still high, American troops present in force, and the country itself completely devastated. Alice, now in her late twenties, who was an artist and something of an intellectual before life-altering events overtook her during the war, is working as a typist on the U.S. base, where she is the only Korean woman making a living off the American military without being a prostitute – although everyone assumes that she is. ‘Only whores or spies take on an easy to pronounce foreign name.’ 
  With Japan’s surrender to America at the end of WWII, America occupied the ex-Japanese colony of Korea, but for Alice, ‘Everything remained the same, except the flag flying in front of the former Japanese Government General of Korea building had changed from the Japanese flag to the American one.’ This observation should find resonance locally, where we are often told that the only change in post-Independence Ireland was that postboxes changed colour from red to green.
  When Marilyn Monroe takes time out from her Japanese honeymoon with Joe DiMaggio to tour Korea, Alice is selected as her translator, because of her trilingual skills. With her prematurely grey hair which she dyes with beer, her fraying lace gloves that hide (self-inflicted) burn marks on her hands, and the memories she fears will engulf her, Alice is – in contemporary parlance – suffering from PTSD, and so initially subdued in the presence of the famous Hollywood starlet. ‘War had killed the love and hope and warmth within me, but it had also spared me. I covered my face with my hands, sobbing out the last bit of love to shore up the life remaining inside.’ But as these two women form an unlikely, temporary friendship, the story of Alice’s traumatic experiences in the conflict emerges, and when she becomes embroiled in a sting operation involving the entrapment of a Communist spy she is forced to confront the past she has been trying so hard to repress. 
  The narrative alternates between 1954 and the years 1947-50, and much of Alice’s current suffering is related to her pre-war, personal love life. Her two ex-lovers, who reappear in her post-war present, are married writer Yo Min-Hwan, and Joseph Pines, an American spy posing as a missionary. They form a naïve ménage a trois, which ends abruptly when she betrays one with the other. But she is also haunted by her failure to protect two little girls in her charge during the strife, Yo’s daughter Song-ha, and Chong-nim, an orphan ‘who grabbed my hand trustingly as we escaped Hungnam amid ten thousand screaming refugees.’
  Alice is a suicide survivor who is planning another attempt, but who comes to realise before it is too late that she is not necessarily responsible for the survivor guilt which is crippling her. Obviously written with an eye to possible filmisation (Lee is a successful screenwriter in her native country), hardly a word is wasted in this beautifully written short novel, especially during the early scene-setting sections. However, the cathartic effects, delineated in the denouement, of Alice’s time with Marilyn, are at best tenuous and at worst contrived. It is telling that the only way to get a Western audience interested in a neglected international episode in which the West was involved, is to drag in one of its most legendary cultural icons, kicking and screaming, rather than focusing solely on the validity of an indigenous woman’s experiences. But maybe that was a calculated compromise, deemed judicious. The work is, nevertheless, a necessary and timely act of reclamation and remembrance for the so-called Forgotten War.

First published in The Irish Times, 27/07/2019

Monday, 8 April 2019

From The Irish Times, 30/04/2019

Minor Monuments

By Ian Maleney
(Tramp Press, €15 p/b)
The writer of this loosely connected debut collection of essays, around the themes of home, memory and belonging, has been plying his trade as a freelance arts correspondent based in Dublin for several years, and is indeed a sometime contributor to this newspaper. However, his origins lie in the much maligned ‘fly over country’ of the midlands – Co. Offaly to be precise – and it is the thug and pull of metropolitan cultural life against the old ways of the small family farm on the edge of a bog which informs the mood of these meditations. 
  One can hardly mention the word ‘bog’ in the context of contemporary Irish letters without a nod to Seamus Heaney, and in ‘A Kind of Closing Cadence’ Maleney writes movingly of what Heaney has meant to him as an enabling influence: ‘For me, Heaney’s success was evidence that the kind of inconsequential rural place I know best could still be worth writing about, and that the touchstones of my parochial upbringing could be made relevant, even telling. It also showed me that my relationship to that place need not be straightforward.’ At first sight it seems strange that Patrick Kavanagh, another writer with a vexed rural/urban relationship, does not get a look in, but stony grey soil differs substantially from marshland, and it is the metaphor of the bog as a repository of familial and communal memory that inspires Maleney. From this muddy foundation emerge the other supporting structures of his book: the loss of memory and identity brought about by his grandfather John Joe’s slow succumbing to Alzheimer’s Disease, and the recording of sound (and, briefly, the taking of photographs) as modes of memory preservation. These deep excavations of ‘bog’ take its connotations far further than the one word signifier it frequently operates as for Dubliners born and bred, like myself, for ‘anywhere beyond the pale’.   
  Maleney studied sound engineering in college, ‘but the promise of that idea had faded by the time I’d finished.’ Growing increasingly dissatisfied with the conventional studio recording of ‘songs’, where the results are often overly predetermined at the expense of the aleatoric ‘happy accidents’ of the process itself, Maleany develops an interest in capturing found sounds, from the modulation of church bells ringing in the distance to the rustle of wind through trees. In this pursuit his guide is English musician and writer David Toop’s book Haunted Weather, which leads him in turn to Brian Eno’s foundational ambient album Discreet Music, which becomes another touchstone.   A more in-depth exploration of why he abandoned sound engineering might have proved fruitful: after all, many of the techniques he favours have now been absorbed into even mainstream recording. Likewise, some engagement with Jacques Attali’s seminal Noise: The Political Economy of Music, which shares many of his concerns, could also have been beneficial. 
  ‘Ambient’ and ‘environment’ are derived, of course, from the same etymological root, and the real breakthrough comes when Maleney hits on the idea of documenting his grandfather’s gradual disintegration, ‘…of trying to record John Joe in whatever ways I could. To track the situation in which he found himself, to follow it in a way that was not rigid, not predefined, but entirely sympathetic, alert to the contours and pressures of his particular atmosphere.’ Thus, the vaguely theoretical finds a practical, personal application, and something abstractly universal is given relevance in the local.
  John Joe’s memory proves tricky terrain for the memoirist, however, and not just because of encroaching Alzheimer’s. Like all of us, his recollections are embellished over time, so that the incidents he is struggling to hold on to may not be factually correct at all. For instance, his account of his sister Chrissy’s departure for America, aged fourteen, does not tally with that of Chrissy herself. ‘John Joe had recalled his sister’s leaving so many times, and over such a long period, that it became mostly fiction.’ Similarly, when Maleney is commissioned to write a feature about the Lough Boora Parklands, site of an old Bord na Móna bog, John Joe bonds with his grandson, recalling working at Boora for almost twenty summers. But it transpires that John Joe never worked in Boora, but ‘…in Blackwater, a bog near the banks of the Shannon, twelve or thirteen miles west of Boora.’ Is this another misremembrance, or the disease going about its baleful business?
  The book takes an interesting left turn in a section entitled ‘Machine Learning’, which discusses the work of scientists John Von Neumann and Alan Turing on artificial intelligence, the boons and vagaries of mechanistic memory storage, and the nature of consciousness itself. A deft invocation of Susan Sontag’s Illness As Metaphorintroduces the most insightful writing on Alzheimer’s and its significances: ‘The primary effect of Alzheimer’s is to make a person utterly useless to their networks…It is a disintegration of personhood. It is a type of death. The process of withdrawal in not something that happens overnight, and it is the drawn-put nature of Alzheimer’s which sparks some of the strongest fear. It is a fear of prolonged humiliation. The patient is, in some deeply abhorrent way, out of control. When the possibility of memory storage disappears, with it goes the ability to either interpret or communicate any information received. In the eyes of others, they may become irrational beings who can no longer follow the same logical steps as everyone else.’
  As the book ends, with John Joe’s funeral, Maleney realises that he would exchange all his knowledge and experience of the world beyond his home place for what John Joe had accumulated in his eighty-three years by the bog, and that he wants ‘…to be part of a community rather than a network.’ But he is also ominously aware that ‘If you try to go back, you will find that nothing is the same. The road vanishes as you walk it.” 
  Despite the acknowledged ‘performative self-narration’ of the youthful excesses of his foray into music journalism (reports of the Death of Rock Music – even if they concern Noel Gallagher – are always premature, if not greatly exaggerated) Maleney is, at least, an honest writer who has written a brave and thoughtful book, which makes him a worthy successor to his esteemed grandfather’s mantle. 

Friday, 14 December 2018

Best Concerts Of 2018

I have, so far, attended 51 gigs in 2018. Here are, in my opinion, the 20 best.

1)    Rachel Baiman & Molly Tuttle – Cleere’s, Kilkenny.
2)    Ry Cooder – National Stadium
3)    Mitski – Tivoli
4)    Jonathan Wilson – Whelan’s
5)    Microdisney – National Concert Hall
6)    Joan As Policewoman – Whelan’s
7)    Ty Segall – Tivoli
8)    Roger Waters – 3 Arena
9)    Josh T Pearson – Whelan’s
10)                   Elvis Costello – Bord Gáis Energy Theatre
11)                   Haim – Olympia
12)                   Chic – RDS
13)                   Wooden Shjips – Whelan’s
14)                   Jim White – Whelan’s
15)                   Johnny Marr – National Stadium
16)                   Moon Duo – Button Factory
17)                   Courtney Marie Andrews – Whelan’s
18)                   Sena Kuti – Sugar Club
19)                   Sillk – Whelan’s
20)                   Low – Vicar Street

Whelan’s is clearly my spiritual home.

Best Albums of 2018

Sitting down to come up with my Top 10 albums of the year this year, I realise with great embarrassment how little new music I’ve heard or bought. Is this stressful and time consuming Life Events (as they are called), or just growing older? Hopefully, only the former. There’s also the matter of means. I’ve spent a lot more of my disposable income (surely one of the greatest oxymorons ever coined) on going to shows (see separate ‘20 Best Gigs of 2018’, coming soon) than I have on purchasing recorded music, due to the need to prioritise in relatively straitened times. Sometimes I wish I worked in a record shop. Maybe one day I will. It’s certainly all changed since my heady days as a Rock Critic, when CDs were falling through the letterbox like leaves from the trees on a windy Autumn day. All I’m trying to say is, I haven’t heard every new release in 2018, so this list is of necessity blinkeredly arbitrary, and must contain glaring omissions I don’t even know about (I’m sure that Alejandro Escovedo’s The Crossing is excellent, but I haven’t heard it, yet.) But here, anyway, and with humble apologies, is the Top 10 I struggled to put together. I am, by way of casual observation, frankly flabbergast that ‘Rare Birds’ by Jonathan Wilson (the best album The Psychedelic Beatles never made) has featured in precisely ZERO end of year Best Of’s I’ve read. Also, as the world by now must know, I’m crazy about Mitski. Here’s to 2019. Peace.
1.) Jonathan Wilson – Rare Birds
2.) Mitski – Be The Cowboy
3.) Ry Cooder – The Prodigal Son
4.) Spiritualized – And Nothing Hurt
5.) Ty Segall – Freedom’s Goblin
6.) Courtney Barnett – Tell Me How You Really Feel
7.) Wooden Shjips – V.
8.) Courtney Marie Andrews – May Your Kindness Remain
9.) Low – Double Negative
10.) Tune-Yards — I can feel you creep into my private life
Bubbling Under:
Melody’s Echo Chamber – Bon Voyage
More Blood, More Tracks – Bob Dylan

Best Films Of 2018

  1) Sicilian Ghost Story
  2) First Reformed
  3) A Fantastic Woman
  4) Loveless
  5) BlacKKKlansman
  6) The Square
  7) Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
  8)  Sorry To Bother You
  9) On Chisel Beach
10) A Star Is Born
Bubbling Under: Lucky, Columbus, The Post, A Quiet Place

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Back in the saddle. My review of The Cruelty Men by Emer Martin, in last Saturday's Irish Times.

The Cruelty Men

By Emer Martin
(Lilliput, €16.00 p/b)
From the publication of her first novel, 1995’s Breakfast In Babylon, it was clear that Emer Martin was an original, radical and vital new voice in Irish writing. Paradoxically, this was because she was charting the experiences of a young, international underclass, the disaffected diaspora, alienated out of Ireland as much by the uncongeniality of prevailing social mores as by any economic necessity. Furthermore, unlike other socially conscious chroniclers of Ireland’s ills at the time, such as Dermot Bolger, she was doing it from a largely female perspective. This global, feminist vision has evolved through her subsequent fictions, More Bread Or I’ll Appear (1999), and Baby Zero (2007). With her new book, however, the long-time California resident has come full circle, training her acutely dissecting gaze on her homeland, with an epic family saga of 20th century Ireland.

  This is the story of the O Conaills, transposed in 1935 from their home village of Cill Rialaig on Bolus Head in Ballinskelligs, Co. Kerry, to found what would become the Meath Gaeltacht in Ráth Chairn – an initiative by the Land Commission to promote the Irish language. So, leaving pregnant mother Grainne behind, to join the rest of the clan later when she had their latest baby, father Dessie heads off in a pony and trap with their already extensive brood: the then ten-year-old Mary, hard-working and good-hearted, around whom much of the narrative revolves; eldest boy Seamus, hapless and conniving, the source of so much trouble for the others; Bridget, first to leave the nest, for Dublin and then America; sensual, adventurous Maeve, who, after a becoming pregnant while working as a shop girl in Trim, spends the rest of her adult life in, successively, a mother and baby home, a lunatic asylum, and a Magdalen laundry; feral, creative Padraig, who also winds up the victim of unimaginable horrors in the ‘big house’ in Mullingar; and the youngest, Sean, a smart lad Mary puts through school and college, who becomes a Christian Brother, but grows disillusioned with the endemic abuse, until he can no longer live with himself.
  Mary vows to her mother to keep the family together, but after her father returns to Kerry in search of his wife who never arrived, himself never to be heard of again, it proves a task too much for a 15-year-old girl to sustain on her own, and the siblings are scattered, one by one. In fairness, it was a gargantuan undertaking, trying to dodge the Cruelty Men of the title, who neighbouring farmer Patsey tells Mary: ‘…usually are retired guards or teachers and they wear brown shirts…They answer to no one and I’ve heard tell that they take bribes from the local industrial school to get more kids in there and put them to work…If they got their hands on you in one of them schools you’d be a slave for the rest of your childhood. The priests are always looking for more children.’ Later, priest’s housekeeper and Goldenbridge graduate, Elizabeth Quinn,  expands on this: ‘They’re not fecking orphanages, Mary, because the children aren’t poxy orphans… They’re not charities. The government is sending money to them for each child. That’s why the Cruelty Men are scouring the country. They prey on the poor and get more and more children. And they keep the women having more and more babies in their ignorance. Babies that they can’t take care of, and then they feed them into schools that are no more than concentration camps. Sure there are children as slaves all over the land.’
  When Seamus gets the small farm, and marries badly, Mary goes into service with the Lyons, a solid middle-class family in Kilbride. This also provides a rich strand of social observation of Ireland in the ’50s and ’60s. Elder daughter Eileen is discouraged from pursuing her dream of becoming a doctor, and opts for nursing instead, as she had to run the gaunlet of the boys’ school to study honours maths, much to the disapproval of the nuns, who did not provide the subject in the convent. Younger girl Teresa (‘Baby’) is steered towards primary school teacher training, as news of a Cambridge scholarship is kept from her.
  Martin has a William Trevor-like ability to sum up an era with a couple of deft brush strokes, as when Baby recounts of herself and Eileen: ‘We met every Sunday and she took me to the 4 Ps as we called it, the Four Provinces on Harcourt Street. They had afternoon dances. No rock and roll allowed but plenty of Pat Boone and Frank Sinatra.’ - which tells you as much about Dublin in 1964 for young people as you need to know.
  The novel also benefits from a foundation of strong underlying myths, like the Bull of Bhalbhae and the Children of Lir, incorporated mostly through Mary’s storytelling. If there is any criticism of this fine work, it might be that we never find out what became of some central characters. But perhaps such lack of resolution is in keeping with the material, as that is often what happened back then.
  There is a school of thought which holds that such so-called revisionist readings of recent Irish history are merely kicking an already open door open, and with the decline of the power of the church/state nexus, serve no useful purpose. Indeed, they are construed as a literary version of ‘talking down the economy.’ But if we forget, we may repeat, and while it may border on cliché to depict priests and nuns as sadistic, self-serving ghouls, Martin’s text stands as a record of a not too distant time when, far from loving both, they loved neither. Besides which, her sensitive treatment of these thwarted, trammelled, traumatised lives, if often angry, is never heavyhanded or preachy, and should propel an already proven and podigious talent to the forefront of contemporary Irish letters.