Saturday 29 November 2014

The Heart of Darkness in the Novels of Louise Penny

I do not usually put on a review of mystery novels written for Critics at Large on this blog unless they are related to the content of That Line of Darkness (Encompass Editions, 2012 and 2013). Since these novels are thematically related to the main thesis of both volumes, I am posting it.

Louise Penny has legions of fans. I once saw a packed house at the Toronto Reference Library enthusiastically waving the latest installment of her Inspector Gamache series in the air so that Penny could photograph the crowd and send it to her publisher. However, I have met a few naysayers who believe her fictional creation of the bucolic rural hamlet of Three Pines in the Quebec Eastern townships, populated by eccentric but kind-hearted residents, iqs too cozy and tidy a la the television series, Morris, Lewis, or PD James’ Inspector Dalgliesh. They contend that Penny’s novels are not sufficiently gritty or cynical in the manner of the television series, Prime Suspect, with Jane Tennison not only under pressure to solve serial murders but forced to contend with sexist hostility from her male underlings, the Ian Rankin novels featuring the anti-social John Rebus, or Michael Connelly’s loner Harry Bosch surrounded by police maleficence or incompetence. In his 2013 Globe and Mail review of the CBC’s production of Still Life, John Doyle dismissed not only the program as “bland” (in which he is spot-on) but Penny’s work as “entertaining yet lacking in complexity and genuine darkness.” He speaks for those who believe that the cerebral but compassionate Armand Gamache, the chief inspector of homicide for the Quebec Sûreté, is too sympathetic or heroic and not as complex and flawed as his counterparts mentioned above. I see their point. But if her critics were to look to the edges of the mystery and the red thread that flows throughout all of the novels, they would recognize the emotional depth and that darkness does envelopor at least threatensthe tranquil village and especially the province of Quebec where police corruption (a term that seems too mild) is deeply entrenched.

Wednesday 12 November 2014

Week Eight: Contemporary Challenges: From Putinism to the Middle East

  In Putin's Kiss Lisa Birk "Pedersen frames her film as a profile of Masha Drokova, who was only 16 when she joined Nashi in 2005 but whose smarts and enthusiasm catapulted her to the top echelon of the organization. A tireless Nashi activist who once collected a kiss from Vladimir himself on TV, Drokova was awarded a medal of honor from the president in 2007, attended a top university, and even had her own TV show, a real credential in a nation where the airwaves are strictly policed by the ruling party. But her growing friendships with liberal journalists—particularly the muckraking Oleg Kashin, who appeared as a guest on her show—pulled her from the far right toward the center and alienated her from Nashi's charismatic founder, Vasily Yakemenko. This isn't quite the human drama Pedersen might wish, but it's compelling enough, and more important, it gives us a look at conservative Russian politics at their most ruthless and vindictive. portrays contemporary life in Russia through the story of Masha, a 19 year-old girl who is a member of Nashi, a political youth organization connected with the Kremlin. Extremely ambitious, the young Masha quickly rises to the top of Nashi, but begins to question her involvement when a dissident journalist whom she has befriended is savagely attacked."
  From a review by J. R. Jones from Chicago Reader

  Maajid Nawazis is the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn and co-founder and chairman of Quilliam, a counter-extremism think tank. He spoke about his journey from being a true believer of being a militant jihad to his repudiation of those fundamentalist beliefs on Sixty Minutes.

"This Frontline documentary, "The Wounded Platoon," accurately portrays how war's corrosive insanity, the very ingredient that can help one survive it, continues to inexorably gnaw away one's humanity until the only thing left is the insanity it instilled. Truly haunting.
A link to an article that compares brain injury  of veterans to football players 

For an excellent review of a new book on suicide in the military see

The TVO program The Agenda  on November 12 had a full program on veterans making the transition from combat to civilian life. You can listen to it on a podcast or watch it though iTunes for free. Highly recommended. For a different perspective on a returning soldier see

How War has Affected the Artist

Although this piece that first appeared in Critics at Large November 11 is not directly related to either volume of  That Line of Darkness (Encompass Editions, 2012 and 2013), I include on this website because I did address in the first volume how filmmakers were affected by the Great War .

Main Street (1979) by Alex Colville

“I have an inherently dark view of the world and human affairs.”

“I think if anything I am perhaps more inclined than most people are to be polite and considerate because I am aware that human relationships are innately fragile and kind of dangerous."
– Alex Colville
For centuries, artists have depicted the horrors and savagery of war. With his miniature engravings, Jacques Callot catalogued torture, execution and the destruction of buildings during the Thirty Years War in the seventeenth century. In his eighty etchings of the Disasters of War and iconic canvasses, May 2, 1808 and May 3, 1808, the acclaimed Spanish artist, Francisco Goya, portrayed with scorching realism the mutilations and terror during the Peninsular War (1808-1814) with France. In the twentieth century, the British government commissioned artists to provide a visual record of the Great War; among the most distinguished were Paul Nash and Christopher R. W. Nevinson. Of the German artists – Franz Marc, Otto Dix, George Grosz, Max Beckmann and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner – only Dix spent four years in the trenches serving up unflinching engravings of that terrible time. Subsequently, he, along with other German artists, evoked the war and its painful costs in vivid paintings and drawings.

What were personal repercussions for these artists? We know nothing about Callot, whose graphic works were executed near the end of his life. The hatred in Goya’s repulsiveness of war can be seen in his Black Paintings that he hung on the walls of his last house in Spain before going into exile in France. The despair and disillusionment in these paintings stem in part from the depression he experienced in 1792 when he suffered a serious physical illness and went deaf, so that it is unclear whether the bleakness of his final work was influenced by the gruesome war or more by his general state of mind. Some of the artists of the Great War suffered serious injuries; Beckmann, Grosz and Kirchner had suffered breakdowns. The evidence for their bitterness or misanthropic worldview can be found more in their visual artistry than in their biographies. Similarly, commissioned artists who served in World War Two were deeply affected, but the form it took can largely be found in their artistic expression not in obviously damaged psyches.

Thursday 6 November 2014

Week Seven: Personal and Collective Historical Challenges

A screen shot from Repentance
The day after the funeral of Varlam Aravidze, the mayor of a small Georgian town, his corpse turns up in his son's garden and is secretly reburied. But the corpse keeps returning, and the police eventually capture a local woman, who is accused of digging it up. She says that Varlam should never be laid to rest because he was responsible for a Stalin-like reign of terror that led to the disappearance of many of her friends. Although the film may appear to be slowing moving for North American reviewers, it is worth your patience as there are some very powerful surrealistic images that convey the horror of Stalinism. Also worth noting is how the son of Varlam justifies his father's activities while the grandson is furious.

Hitler’s Children "is a unique documentary film that reveals, for the first time, the ways in which family members of high rank senior Nazi officers from Hitler’s inner circle struggle with the burden of carrying a terror-inducing surname. During detailed interviews, families such as Goering, Himmler, Hoess amongst others, share the feelings of guilt and responsibility that accompany them in their daily lives.

During his detailed and intensive research, director and producer, Chanoch Ze’evi, third generation of Holocaust survivors, was able to convince direct descendants’ of members of the Nazi regime to speak with him, thereby creating a in-depth and mesmerizing dialogue that tells the story of the Holocaust from a new and original vantage point. "

I have commented on this film in my review of Lore

Sunday 2 November 2014

True Believers: Two Novels Inspired by Historical Actors

This review originally appeared in Critics at Large November 2. I include on this website because I wrote a chapter on the Cold War in That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden  (Encompass Editions, 2013).

Canadian diplomat Herbert Norman and his wife, Irene, in 1956 (Photo courtesy of UBC Library archives)

In April 1957 the distinguished Canadian scholar and diplomat, Herbert Norman, committed suicide by jumping from a roof in Cairo. Canadian-born to missionaries working in Japan, he joined External Affairs in 1939, and during the crazed atmosphere of the early 1950s, he was subjected to a thorough security inquiry by the RCMP, largely because of his left-wing sympathies when he attended Cambridge University during the 1930s. Even though he was vindicated, the Mounties passed on his file to the FBI. His name came up in testimony before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee (SISS) and again he was given a clean billing. His boss at External Affairs, Lester Pearson, appointed him as Ambassador to Egypt to serve as a conduit between Gamal Abdel Nasser and the West during the Suez Crisis. SISS revived the Norman “case” and to avoid another humiliating security inquiry, Norman took his own life setting off a firestorm of anti-American feelings in Canada.

In 1986 two purportedly scholarly books were published that were diametrically opposed in approach and conclusions: Innocence Is Not Enough: The Life and Death of Herbert Norman by Roger Bowen and No Sense of Evil: Espionage, The Case of Herbert Norman by James Barros. The titles tell us much about the perspective of the authors. Reviewers generally praised Bowen’s offering as a defence of Norman’s integrity and explained his death as a response to the slanders that he had to endure that left him with “no refuge but suicide.” Barros’ thesis that Norman was an agent of the Soviet state “planted in the Canadian diplomatic service” was largely excoriated. In the Canadian Forum, Reg Whittaker reviled No Sense of Evil as a “disgrace to the best tradition of scholarly inquiry” because Barros was not able to present a single piece of evidence to prove that Norman engaged in espionage, was guilty of disloyalty or treason. Yet the Norman controversy did not end here. Barros and MPs supportive of his polemic put such pressure on the government to pursue an independent inquiry that Joe Clark, then Minister for External Affairs, appointed Peyton Lynn, a former diplomat and retired academic, to conduct an investigation in which he was given access to all relevant documents. His report completely exonerated Norman of any wrong doing and proclaimed him a loyal Canadian public servant.

This preamble is by way of introducing the absorbing Mr. Jones (Goose Lane, 2014), the most recent offering by the accomplished Winnipeg dramatist, singer-lyricist and award winning novelist, Margaret Sweatman. Herbert Norman is a minor character but his spirit hovers throughout the novel to the extent that Emmet Jones becomes a doppelganger to Norman. Sweatman does alter her profile of Jones to alert the reader that he is not a carbon copy of Norman. For instance, Emmet was pilot of the Bomber Command during the war that devastated German cities, killing thousands of civilians. When he returns to Japan to work for the External Affairs Department, his observations of a fire-bombed burnt out post-war Tokyo trigger nightmares of his consuming dead flesh. And his personal relationship with his wife Suzanne and their young daughter, Lenora, perhaps the most intuitive character, is fictional.