A Brazilian everyone should read- and no, it’s not Coelho.

My last few posts have been of quite a serious nature, and I actually can’t bring myself to write about all the terrible things that are happening in the world all the time. It gets a little too much, even for someone who hates injustice as much as I do. So today, I thought I would take a step back from it all and talk about one of the lights of my life – literature.

For anyone that hasn’t read my bio (and let’s be honest, why would you, the interesting stuff is all here), I studied modern languages at university, specifically Spanish and Portuguese. That meant I came into contact with a fair amount of Latin American literature whilst I was studying, and it’s something I love. Now, of course, there are the greats; Borges, García Marquez, Vargas Llosa, – I could go on, but would not wish to bore you.

Without a doubt these are all literary giants, and fully deserve their place among the pantheon of the continent’s most celebrated. I am not, however, going to talk about them today – others will do so in the future, and indeed have done so, much more eloquently than I could, and as such I will leave them to it.

No, today I wish to write about an author who I believe is sometimes overlooked in the category of Latin American greats. An author who does not receive as much attention as some of the authors from the 20th century, and perhaps missed the wave of popularity upon which Latin American literature has surged since magical realism’s irresistible rise. The writer I refer to is Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, author of Dom Casmurro, one of the most fascinating books of the 19th century. He is, of course, a very well respected novelist, but is perhaps not as well known as he should be among Anglo-Saxon readers, and as such I try to promote his work at every opportunity.

Looked at simply, his magnum opus ‘Dom Casmurro’ is a modern(ish) reimagining of the Othello story, set in 1890s Brazil. The book is wonderful for so many reasons, but what drives my fascination with it to heights that other novels never quite manage to achieve is the narrative itself. We follow the protagonist, Bentinho, who is also the narrator, from childhood, as he deals with familial dramas, the priesthood, and relationships. He falls in love with his sweetheart Capitu, and on the surface it is a story of that love becoming realised and the subsequent betrayal.

The plot is interesting in and of itself, but it is this narrative voice that pushes this book to the level of classic in my opinion. Rarely has any first person narrative that I have read been so simultaneously interesting and engaging. No matter how hard many authors try, one of the most notoriously difficult things in literature is to get a narrator to engage with the reader immediately, but Machado does it brilliantly.

From the very beginning of the story the reader is on Bentinho’s side, everything is conveyed with such innocence and occasional naivety that the possibility that everything he is saying might not be completely accurate is not even considered until much later in the book than we might otherwise. Dom Casmurro feels like a friend telling you a story, with in-jokes and asides directed at the reader, drawing them in and making them a character in Bentinho’s narrative, and it is that that helps us to engage with Bentinho, and to feel his emotions so starkly.

In short, then, if you happen across a copy of Dom Casmurro in translation (there is a fantastic one by Helen Caldwell, just don’t read the introduction until after reading the story!) then I would heartily recommend you buy it and devour it immediately. Machado is perhaps not as well known as he might be, but this is no reflection on his literary capacity, and anything written by him is more than worth reading, though, as you may be able to tell, Dom Casmurro remains firmly my favourite.

Anybody that has read Machado, or has any other recommendations, I would love to hear from you. No doubt next week I will be back writing about things that have annoyed me once more, so it has been nice to escape for an hour, at least. After all, what is literature for if not to escape the horrors of our own world and enter the magic of another?

On Awareness- The Importance of Keeping Perspective

Yesterday, I saw my first dead body. As I travelled back from Oxford to London, I passed a car that had flipped over and caught fire. By the time my bus passed it, the flames were perhaps thirty feet high, and there were paramedics at the side of the road, trying to deal with at least two people. I later found out that these people were pronounced dead on the scene. And that scene horrified me.

At the tender age of 23 then, I have seen my first violent death, a death where the life force has been unfairly ripped from an unsuspecting body and spilled all over the tarmac. That got me thinking, isn’t that an incredible thing to be able to say? Compare my story with the Syrian child who at 10 years of age has seen his whole family torn apart, the man from Sierra Leone who has watched his community ravaged by Ebola, or the Ukrainian woman whose house has been destroyed by shelling by pro-Russian forces. To them, my plight would surely seem a trivial matter.

In this country we are fortunate in that we don’t have to experience these horrors very often, and they are still shocking when they do occur. It is all too easy to become wrapped up in your own difficulties, in the struggles of your own country and this shocking scene served as a reminder to me that I must not forget the trials that others go through, the terrible violence that some must face and deal with every day.

Today, I am a citizen of the world and I am reminded that some of my fellow citizens show an inner strength every day that I cannot even begin to imagine. The conditions that some have to live in are truly worthy of our respect and admiration, and I can only hope that one day the world will be such that people who haven’t seen a dead body by the age of 23 will be in a very, very large majority. If that can be achieved, and it still remains a big if, then the world will be a much better place. It is easy to forget in the comfort of your own country, but forget we must not. In an increasingly globalised world, any humanitarian struggle is my struggle, and the least I can do is be mindful of how fortunate I am to have been so sheltered.

We need to talk about Politics – Why Partial Exclusion From TV Debates Can Only Increase Perceived Isolationism.

In the spirit of inclusion, the television debates that will precede the general election in the UK this year have been expanded to include seven major parties in this country. David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg will line up against Nigel Farage (UKIP), Natalie Bennet (Green Party), Nicola Sturgeon (SNP) and Leanne Wood (Plaid Cymru) to debate politics and policy before a final run-off debate between Cameron and Miliband.

So the broadcasters have bowed to popular demand and included some of the ‘fringe’ parties to challenge the monopoly of the big three. But which of these has the honour of being the biggest influence on Westminster, of holding the most seats outside of the traditional English parties? The answer is, surprisingly, none of them, but rather a party that has not even been invited to the debate at all; the Democratic Unionist Party, which holds a majority in Northern Ireland and has more seats in Parliament than the SNP the Greens, and UKIP put together.

It is a somewhat bizarre decision to include a party that is as important to its country as the DUP is. The argument from broadcasters is that Plaid Cymru and SNP have been invited because they are in direct competition with the major parties. This is easy rhetoric, but does not really make sense. The DUP takes its seats in Westminster, votes on UK-wide laws, and as such should have representation at the debates as the local majority party, just as the SNP and Plaid Cymru have.

There is something rather sinister in explaining away Northern Irish politics as ‘different’, as if excluding them from the debate is expected to make it more transparent and less often perceived as isolationist. Yes, there is no direct competition for the DUP for the three main parties, but this does not mean they should not be allowed to speak on national issues. If so much value is placed on being a Union, which it clearly was when Scotland almost left it, why is one part of that Union still ignored when it comes to the major press spectacle before an election?

Excluding Northern Irish parties because it would make the debate too complex lost weight as an argument when other parties representing individual countries of the UK were invited, and broadcasters should have the courage in their convictions to invite Northern Irish Parties, or to stick to their original plan of including the three main parties, and also leaving out the Green party and UKIP. It has gone too far for the latter, but I suspect, unfortunately, that the former will not happen either, and it is a shame for political discourse in this country. Many people may not like what the DUP have to say, or their background as a party, but as I have said before, they deserve a platform on which to say it.

The Trivialisation of a Cold-Blooded Killer: Why giving nicknames to terrorists is an insult to their victims.

I don’t want to keep writing about terrorists. I really don’t. But every time I try to walk away from it and do something else for a while I read something that annoys me enough that I have to pen something or silently seethe, and I would always rather write. As such, here we are again.

Today that frustration stems from how terrorism is dealt with in the media, particularly how certain, individual, terrorists are treated. Yesterday a tape was released threatening the brutal execution of two Japanese men who crossed the border into Syria, and the media is once again filled with talk of ‘Jihadi John’ and his threats.

Can they just not? This isn’t your mate John from down the pub, you know, the one with the funny nickname that’s completely ironic. No, this is a man who has committed a number of brutal murders on camera for purposes of propaganda, a man who is threatening more murders still. And yet, the papers have the nerve to give him a cute, diminutive nickname that quasi-legitimises what he is doing by putting it in the context of Jihad.

Frankly, they should know better. They, of all people should be aware of the power of words and the effect that they can have on people. What he is doing is not a ‘holy war’ it is murder and snuff videos, and it is about time we started calling it that, in all contexts. The only thing this nickname achieves is to enhance his own fame, whilst his victims, who were trying to do good in the region, are slowly forgotten. I wonder how many people could name any of those killed now without looking it up? My guess would be not many, and that is the real tragedy.

So, in future, whenever I read ‘Jihadi John’ in print, I shall be taking a pen to it, crossing it out, and writing ‘Murderous Coward’ in its stead, and I would encourage everyone else to do the same.

In a bit of a Pickle(s) – my reaction to Eric Pickles and the Muslim Council

Eric Pickles and Lord Ahmad yesterday co-signed a letter to 1000 Muslim leaders that expressed a desire to fight extremism in Islam and strive for better integration between communities. I am naturally suspicious of a public airing of something that could be better said in private, and I do suspect that the letter has a more than a hint of a ‘reassuring the general public that we are doing something’ aim to it.

Issuing a letter like this in the immediate aftermath of the horrific attacks in Paris seems simplistic and poorly timed at best, and populism aimed at the white majority at its worst. So I don’t like the letter, or at least the form that it comes in, but the reaction of the Muslim Council of Great Britain towards it has hardly been a helpful one.

Where the point of terrorist attacks is to divide and provoke, as well as to cause terror, the message in the letter is largely a positive one. It seeks to reach some form of sensitive conclusion about helping communities to better express themselves and avoid extremism. Nobody is suggesting that every Muslim is waiting to be radicalised, nor that every Imam has a radical wing of his mosque to keep under control.

So, to me, the decision to be pedantic about the wording of the letter rather than commending its general message of tolerance and inclusion is a surprising and counterproductive one. Imams are leaders in their communities as well as on a religious level, and as such, it is reasonable to ask them to be more vigilant than normal within their towns and cities given the troubled times we live in.

Whether we like it or not, young people are being radicalised in the name of Islam, and brainwashed into doing unspeakable things in the name of the religion. Fortunately, in this country, we have already achieved a certain level of harmony that allows sensible discussion to take place, and debate to be had but we should not allow this to get in the way of action.

There should be no justification for blaming Muslims for the actions of people who commit acts of terror in the name of Allah. Equally, however, there is no reason not to sensitively remind people of their obligations as citizens in the face of extremism. As stated, I have an issue with the form of the letter and the amount of public attention it has received, as I believe it could have been better managed through private meetings, but the takeaway from the contents of the letter should be positive. To do otherwise only invokes the disharmony upon which terrorists thrive, and serves merely to distance communities from each other when there is no real reason to do so.

Of course, this could be seen as a mere distraction from the real issue at hand, which is why the extremists are driven to radicalisation in the first place. Yes, Islam and other religions offer them a potentially dangerous safe haven because they provide them with the absolute authority to act as they see fit in the name of their god, but it is not religion’s fault that they turn to extremism in the first place.

No, instead the problem is one of class warfare and isolation. Religions thrive on their sense of community, on the implication that by being a part of a particular cult, you are part of something bigger, a greater plan. Just look at where religion’s roots are strongest – South America and Africa. It is not difficult to see that those most marginalised by society often turn to religion to escape from the perceived inadequacies of their current situation, and why, if they fall in with the wrong people through that, it can lead to radicalisation. All it takes is a word in the ear from the wrong person for the seed of extremism to take hold, particularly with the global nature of the conflict being as it is.

As such, it is hardly surprising that young people who feel they do not fit in with the current British way of living, whether that be because of their background, their education, or simply their level of wealth are unlikely to attempt to force their way in when they have a clear, and often preferable, alternative. Isolationism is the main cause of individuals being driven to extremism and this is what we should really be talking about; not the religions they manipulate once they are there. Not enough effort is made to strive for integration between respective communities, and it is this that must be addressed before anything else.

The letter then, whilst to a certain point a piece of propaganda to show that action is being taken to combat extremism in our communities, is well intentioned, if a little simplistic. It does not begin to address the causes of young men and women being driven to search out extremism in the first place. If, then,we are going to be taken seriously on this matter, and prove we are not merely passing the buck to Muslim communities in the face of radicalisation, we must make finding the political cause of this top of our list of priorities, and do our utmost to stamp it out.

A Brief History of Hawking- Redmayne’s performance shines in a sometimes overambitious film.

Let’s get this out the way; Eddie Redmayne is phenomenal in this film. He gives a performance of great nuance as he slowly slips from showing the first signs of Stephen Hawking’s well-known disability into something more recognisable as the physicist that we know today. It is all in the detail; from the eyes to the way he holds his mouth he creates a sensitive portrait of the iconic professor. It is a truly impressive, and quite likely an Oscar winning performance.

Having said that, I would be surprised if the film won the prize for best film, as while relatively well made, and at times very well directed, it is a film that sometimes suffers under the weight of its own subject matter. It takes as its source material the second (and kinder) memoir of Hawking’s wife Jane Wilde (played here by Felicity Jones), and unfortunately, reaches beyond its capacity in doing so.

The film attempts to span almost the entirety of Hawking’s adult life, from when he began as a post-graduate student at Cambridge in 1963 to the mid-2000s. In doing so, it fails to commit to any particular period of the physicist’s life, and as an audience we feel many details are missing. Why, for example, do Hawking and Jane drift apart? We are told almost nothing of his scientific advances either, which is a shame, as this is probably the most interesting thing about the sometimes troubled cosmologist.

Ultimately, this is a personal narrative that fails to build enough of a connection with the characters over a sustained period of time for it to be an effective one; too many parts of their lives are simply left unexplained. It is a pity, because the parts of the film that are good, such as the interaction between Stephen and Jane when he loses his voice and is reduced to speaking through eye movements, can be very powerful and, indeed, moving.

The problem is that it necessarily all feels formulaic. It is impossible to squeeze all the life events of a man who has had so many enormous ups and tremendous downs into a coherent film. It becomes the inevitable formula of personal advance followed by physical setback, followed by time jump ad infinitum. The supporting cast does a perfectly adequate job of carrying the piece, but Redmayne is the right man in the right role, and inevitably steals the show, though David Thewlis is also worth a mention as Stephen’s mentor Dennis Sciama, along with Felicity Jones as the long-suffering Jane.

The direction of the film is largely impossible to criticise. An overuse, in my opinion, of some quite unsubtle religious imagery, is perhaps inevitable given the conflicting beliefs of the two protagonists and the divisions it caused between them, but fortunately doesn’t distract too much from the general flow. The cinematography is also excellent, showing Cambridge in all of its academic glory. However, the home-video style montages that serve as time jumps interspersed throughout the film is somewhat egregious and, probably, too simplistic a device for such a complex subject.

The film is, nonetheless, generally a good one, and certainly an enjoyable one. The performances certainly carry what is on occasion a slow script, and it is worth the entrance money just to watch Redmayne become Hawking. It is truly one of the best performances in recent memory, and I would be not at all surprised if he went home with an Oscar this year, even if the film as a whole did not quite live up to my expectations.

A formidable drama of power struggles- my thoughts on Foxcatcher.

Foxcatcher, the story of the ultimately doomed relationship between multimillionaire John Du Pont (Steve Carell) and two of the finest Olympic wrestlers of the 80’s, Dave and Mark Schultz (Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum respectively) is an excellent film. Director Bennet Miller does a fantastic job of moving the wrestling beyond the mat and into the plot itself, as each of the principal characters grapple with their own internal and external struggles.

The performances are the centrepiece of the film and have been rightly praised. Carell has chosen the perfect character to break from his comedy comfort zone, and delivers a brilliant turn as the multi-millionaire John Du Pont. As eerie and unpredictable as Du Pont is, Carell manages to bring out just the right amount of his pathetic and needy nature to help us understand why Du Pont feels it necessary to be so controlling, and this is the variation in tone is the reason why it is such a compelling performance.

Ruffalo and Tatum make up the impressive triumvirate that is the central cast, and both are exceptional. Ruffalo instantly falls into the physicality of the role, subtly asserting his dominance over his brother, not only in his communication but even down to the way the two embrace, in an almost wrestling-like pose, but crucially one of which Ruffalo is always in control. Tatum’s frustration is palpable throughout the piece, and admirably performed both physically and emotionally; his will to break from his brother’s influence is obvious and the driving force of the film.

Indeed, in a film about wrestling, it is this struggle for dominance that catches the eye. Foxcatcher is most obviously a film about fulfilling potential, but it is much more than that. It is a film about stepping out of shadows. This is most obvious with Mark attempting to eclipse his brother, but perhaps the more interesting relationship is that of Du Pont and his controlling mother Jean (Vanessa Redgrave).

Framing it in this way, we can gain an insight into Du Pont’s obsessive nature. His interest in wrestling initially comes from a desire to break away from his mother’s triumphs in horse breeding and have success of his own. He craves attention, and that is where his controlling obsession comes to the fore. He is caught between a desire to win and a desire to be liked, to be a coach, to be a father figure to his wrestlers, and to some extent he succeeds, at least in the beginning. And yet, when his mother is watching, he falls apart, attempting to show her the empire he is trying to build, but ultimately failing to live up to his junior partners, the Schultz brothers, as she criticises him for his love of this ‘low’ sport.

The only criticism I would have of the film is the fact its slow pacing, which otherwise works well as a tension builder, means that there is no space to explore Du Pont’s backstory and the build-up to the dramatic turn of events with which the film culminates.

It is, in a way, rushed over in an unclear manner in the last thirty minutes and the full extent of Du Pont’s character alteration is perhaps not explored as fully as it could have been. There appears to be a lot of material relating to his breakdown and the reasons behind it, but Miller, for one reason or another has chosen to skip over it, only hinting at what may have been going on. In my opinion he has missed a trick here, as it could have added a bit more reason to the otherwise random nature of Du Pont’s actions.

This does not, however, detract too much from the film as a whole as, in general, it is nicely paced, thoughtfully directed, and beautifully filmed. Foxcatcher is a fantastic vehicle for the talents of its three main cast members, who do not disappoint. Expect the film to be there or thereabouts for the major awards this year, it certainly deserves to be.