Tuesday 16 November 2021

Book Review: Utterly Dark and the Face of the Deep (2021) by Philip Reeve

Let's talk about world-building. It's the keystone of sci-fi and fantasy novels, but in my reading experience it's the rare author in those fields who can do it well. Some writers over egg their pudding by cramming details about customs, languages, laws, and zoology into their writing until their "world" begins to feel like a fussy, claustrophobia-inducing, overfurnished apartment filled with things and people who apparently got their names as the result of a tragic draw of tiles from a Scrabble bag. These are the writers who probably spend their spare time building extravagant model train layouts. Frank Herbert and Iain Banks must have been enthusiastic hobbyists. On the other hand, there are authors who pay as little attention to world-building as I do to maintaining my lawn. I can recall an SF novel set on a planet that was one big ocean and yet contained only one described type of fish. One! N.K. Jemisin's The Fifth Season is very well-written but I couldn't finish it because the world-building was so threadbare. And that's the unique thing about world-building; otherwise good writers can be duds at that particular craft. 

The kings and queens of world-building would be Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Diane Wynne Jones. So where does that leave Philip Reeve, author of the Mortal Engines Quartet and a wide variety of other SF/F novels for the YA and JF crowd? I'd rank him as a princeling or dauphin, able to shape and populate living, breathing new worlds that fire the imagination without resorting to boxcar-sized info dumps. In Utterly Dark, the setting is an alternate reality Britain in the early Victorian period(?). Utterly Dark is also the name of a girl, a foundling who washed up on a beach in a basket on the island of Wildsea off the coast of England. She was adopted and raised by Andrewe Dark, who has the ancestral, but boring, task of watching the western seas from a tower at sundown every night. He's on the lookout for a legendary sea monster called the Gorm, who, so far, has never shown up. Andrewe drowns and Utterly takes over his job, at least until Will, Andrewe's brother, arrives from England. Soon enough, the Gorm goes from legend to kraken-ish reality, a cohort of Seaweed Men appear, as well as a sunken city and an irate Queen of the Deeps. 

Reeve's is on top of his world-building game here. Wildsea is a recognizably English world, but one seasoned with enough subtle differences to make it pleasingly new and intriguing. When the action moves on and under the ocean, things kick up a notch. The highlight is the sight of the phosphorescent souls/spirits of drowned men and women bobbing below the surface of the water like so many ethereal jellyfish. It's a brilliantly haunting image. Utterly Dark delivers in terms of imagination and adventure, but if there's problem with the novel is that it feels like an amuse bouche setting up the planned sequel(s). The undersea section is the most compelling part of the story, but, unfortunately, it doesn't take up enough of the plot. Here's hoping for an entirely sub-aqueous sequel. 

Tuesday 9 November 2021

Book Review: The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma (1932) by Tadeusz Dolega-Mostowicz

This Polish satirical novel first gained fame when it became known that Polish-American novelist Jerzy Kosinski had plagiarized it for his novel Being There (1970), which later became a critically-acclaimed film starring Peter Sellers. It's only recently been translated, and it's easy to see what made it a tempting target for Kosinki: the story is wrapped up in details of Polish political and cultural life from the 1930s, but the basic concept of a ne'er-do-well making a meteoric rise from the gutter to the top thanks to a chance remark is clearly and easily transferable to other countries and times.

We meet Nicodemus, the titular rascal, just as he fails an audition to be a "taxi dancer," a job that entails being paid to dance with any and all partners at a low-rent dance hall. This is the latest in a lifetime of setbacks for Nicodemus, who's approaching forty and lives in the corner of a grotty Warsaw apartment with a prostitute and an unsympathetic landlady. Nicodemus is wandering the city when he comes into possession of an invitation for a banquet at one of Warsaw's top hotels. Since his worldly wealth consists of the evening suit which he'd hoped to use to get a dancing job, Nicodemus decides to don this disguise and go to the banquet in the hope of scarfing as much food as possible before he's thrown out. The banquet is attended by the country's political elite, and Nicodemus is just about to start gobbling some food when a man bumps into him and sends his food to the floor. In his rage at losing some nice grub, Nicodemus loudly curses the man out. The man is Terkowski, a minister in the government, who, it turns out, has many enemies and rivals, all of whom are delighted that he's been cut down a notch in public. Nicodemus harsh words are mangled and revised in the retelling, and within the space of an hour he's a hero. 

From there, Nicodemus rides a rising tide of rumor, dumb luck, and baseless supposition that casts him in the role of a financial savant who can solve Poland's economic woes. Nicodemus is avaricious enough to seize this opportunity, and cunning and ruthless enough to rise still further. The only person who sees through him immediately is an aristocratic madman, the brother of a wealthy heiress Nicodemus eventually marries. As the novel ends, Nicodemus is contemplating an offer to form Poland's next government.

The novel's satire is broad and savage, and Nicodemus's rise to the top is cleverly plotted. The author is particularly good at showing how the elites Nicodemus moves among are eager and willing to interpret his ignorant and clueless statements as pearls of wisdom, and a lot of the humour arises from this dichotomy. Any comparisons to Donald Trump are entirely appropriate. A sub-plot about a cult of devil-worshipping women who appoint Nicodemus as their leader feels out of place, but I'll assume it would have had some meaning for the novel's original audience. It's clear Kosinski stole this novel's plot, but I'd guess Dolega-Mostowicz was inspired by the story of Wilhelm Voigt. In 1906 Voigt disguised himself as a German Army captain, commandeered a group of soldiers in the small town of Kopenick, marched to the town hall and had the town's mayor arrested on fraud charges. He then took 4,000 marks from the town coffers as "evidence" and promptly disappeared. Voigt was a career petty criminal, and the success of his scam relied on the automatic and unthinking respect Germans gave to army officers. Voigt and his ruse became famous (he made a personal appearance tour!), and his story was told in films and a play called The Captain of Kopenick. The Big Lie, it seems, works equally well in fiction and real life.

Thursday 4 November 2021

Film Review: The Girl with a Pistol (1968)


The amazing variety and quantity of good to great films produced by the Italian film industry from, say, 1955 to '75 never ceases to amaze me; what's even more startling is how many of these films are barely known or even forgotten. The big name directors like Fellini, Bertolucci, and Antonioni still get their justly deserved due, but filmmakers such as Elio Petri, Mario Monicelli, and Antonio Pietrangeli, like the other three, should be in the pantheon of directors famous enough to be known by their last names only. 

Monicelli,  the director of The Girl with a Pistol, was, and is, famous for Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958), but his greatest film, The Organizer (1963), a beautifully-crafted and entertaining story about a labour revolt in 19th-century Turin, never turns up on listicles of all-time great films. Girl is a picaresque comedy that's good, but not great, and features some of the best qualities of Italian cinema from that period. And, of course, it's almost forgotten. 

Assunta, played by Monica Vitti, is a young Sicilian woman who is accidentally abducted by her sister's suitor, Vincenzo. According to Sicilian custom, a woman taken like this must marry her kidnapper to avoid the shame of being a "dishonoured" woman. Assunta is happy to have been taken, but Vincenzo is alarmed by her sexual enthusiasm, which he feels make her a "shameless" woman. He abandons her and flees to England. Sicilian tradition dictates that Vincenzo should be killed by a male member of Assunta's family to restore Assunta's honour, but there are no men in Assunta's family. Assunta decides to follow Vincenzo to England and kill him herself.

What follows is a road movie as Assunta bounces around England searching for Vincenzo and experiences multiple culture shocks as she encounters a vastly more liberal society. After a variety of comic adventures she becomes romantically involved (sort of) with an English doctor (played by Stanley Baker) begins working as a model, becomes liberated, and finally gets a measure of revenge against Vincenzo. 

The humour in Girl is often on the broad and silly side, but Vitti's skillful, charming performance makes most of it palatable. Although the film gets some comic mileage out of poking fun at Brits (OMG men in kilts! Gay aristos!), the sharpest comic barbs are aimed at Sicily's codes of honour, modesty, and machismo that trap women and men in ridiculous and dangerous relationships. This is driven home in the film's first scene in which a rooftop full of single men dance the twist with each other while looking longingly at a shuttered window across the street behind which single women dance together to the same music. In this regard Girl is very on point for Italian cinema in its charting of the massive fault lines in Italian society. The other hallmark of the best Italian directors is their strong visual sense, and that's very much on show here. The scenes in Assunta's village are strikingly composed and include several brief fantasy sequences that are of a Fellini standard. But the English scenes! Sometimes it takes a stranger to see a country as it really is, and Monicelli shows us images of the country that UK directors of the time probably avoided. Part of the story takes place in Sheffield, and Monicelli delights in showing its blackened buildings and smoky atmosphere. And his London isn't swinging, it's dirty and filled with poky little restaurants and cafes. The film, despite being a big hit in Italy, was never released in the UK, and one wonders if it was because of how it depicted Britain and the British.

This film exists--barely, it seems--on DVD, but I saw it on YouTube, and that print has pretty minimal subtitles. Despite that drawback, it's still very entertaining and a reminder that for twenty years the Italians ruled cinema.