Book Review: Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry

First of all, Happy New Year to everyone!

(Many people have been waiting expectantly for 2020 to come in anticipation of some change, but I can’t know if we’ll be better off or worse come this time next year.)

But enough about that.    Night Boat to Tangier

I want to talk about Kevin Barry’s brilliant new novel Night Boat to Tangier. A friend said that when he heard it described, it reminded him of Martin McDonagh’s film In Bruge,  and sure there are two Irishmen, hapless criminal types philosophizing on their lives, past and present, and on their long relationships with each other. For me, however, I kept imagining the two protagonists as Estragon and Vladimir, not waiting for Godot but for a long lost daughter on a ferry on which they themselves used to run drugs twenty years earlier.

As Maurice and Charlie sit in the ferry terminal in the port of Algeciras, Spain in October 2018, watching the passengers boarding and disembarking on the night boat to Tangier, their pasts comes burbling up–outlining and shaping their lives for the past twenty five years. It is a past full of lost love, violence, adventure, betrayal and exile.

But it is not necessarily the plot or the characters that is the focus of this book. It is the language itself.

There are comic turns:

Ye’d be sleeping out on the beaches.
Like the lords of nature, Charlie says.
Under the starry skies, Maurice says.
Charlie stands, gently awed and proclaims–
“The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue friut.” Whose line was that, Maurice?
I believe it was the Bard, Charlie. Or it may have been Little Stevie Wonder.
A genius. Little Stevie.*

There is darkness:

Of the dozen or so unreliable narrators narrators left in the room at this small hour, all would claim to have seen what happened next–except for Nelson, who considered himself fortunate to be on the other side of the bar–and, in fact, Jimmy Earls would claim even to have heard what happened next…and it was this ripping sound that Jimmy Earls vowed he would carry with him to the deadhouse, and with it the single dull gasp that [was] made.

And then there are passages of pure beauty:

October. The month of slant beauty. Knives of melancholy flung in silvers from the sea. The mountains dreamed of the winter soon to come. The morning sounded hoarsely from the caverns of the bay. The birds were insane again. If she kept walking, toe to heel, one foot after the other, one end of the room to the other, the nausea kept to one side only. The pain was yellowish and intense and abundantly fucking ominous. Cynthia knew by now that she was very sick.

To be sure, neither of the men is of admirable moral fiber. In fact, they are violent, treasonous, disloyal, cowardly, unfaithful drug runners.

And yet, it is the language that makes these two likable. They see the world with a sort of poetic vision–from the gutter to the stars. It is the language that gives them a method for coping with an ever-disappointing, fearful existence.

ARTS / FEATURES Kevin Barry

The novelist Kevin Barry . Photograph: Bryan O’Brien / THE IRISH TIMES

Language has always been Kevin Barry’s forte. His first novel, City of Bohane presented a post-apocalyptic Ireland which is described in a patois of street slang, Irish, and invention. In its originality it might remind one of Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. Beatlebone-the novel previous to Night Boat to Tangier–takes perhaps the most public of lives–John Lennon’s–and places a western Irish mythology upon it that is dazzlingly beautiful and outlandishly comic.

The words “daring” and “original” and “beautiful” and “brilliant” are often sprinkled around reviews of Barry’s work. They are both appropriate and insufficient. He is much more than that.

*(By the way, it was neither Shakespeare or Stevie Wonder whom Charlie was quoting. It was James Joyce.)

Bowler Hats: Chaplin and Bloom…Sally Bowles and Sabina

A few decades ago, I remember having to read a piece on “the sociology of clothing in the Victorian era.” The author’s intent was to show that fashion had a subtext. I remember clearly the argument about men’s hats. The thesis was that the height of a man’s hat in Victorian England was proportionate to his status on the social scale.  i.e. The society toffs wore tall top hats, the navvies and farmers wore flat caps.

I thought of this again after a conversation about “bowlers.” A friend and I had just finished reading Milos Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being and were commenting on the bowler hat that the character Sabina is attached to (it reminds her of her grandfather) and which she often wears during sex.

“It’s a silly hat,” my friend said. “There is really nothing sexy about it.”

Silly or sexy?  I’d state that both things are true, depending on who’s wearing it.

For Christmas this year, my young nephew gave me a tee-shirt imprinted with the text of Joyce’s Ulysses on it. The text is manipulated to depict Leopold Bloom’s mustache and bowler hat. (Though I argue that Bloom would never wear his hat tilted at such a jaunty angle.)

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Leopold Bloom t-shirt

Now, although the book ends with Bloom’s wife repeatedly affirming her husband’s worth (“yes,  yes I said yes I will Yes.”), throughout much of the novel, Bloom is a figure of ridicule.  And a bowler hat only underscores that. (In truth, those who most ridicule him wear flat caps or no hats at all.)

When I was little my parents enjoyed Laurel and Hardy. (How politically incorrect we all 354845-laurel-and-hardywere then: I didn’t know their names were “Laurel and Hardy” until much later. My mom had always called them “Fats and Skinny.”)  They both wore bowlers, doffing them in times of embarrassment or playing with them in times of nervousness.

Now, Chaplin’s bowler represents something else. As the Little Tramp, he is at the very bottom of the social scale, and yet his dignity, manners and goodheartedness far outshine those socially above him. Perhaps, it is that chiasmus between the tramp and gentle-behavior and “gentlemen” and their boorishness that the bowler suggests. It could also simply be that the “little tramp” is wearing whatever has been tossed aside.  Nevertheless, it is part of his comic ensemble. In the film Chaplin, there is a marvelous scene where Robert Downey Jr. as Chaplin, first puts together his iconic “Little Tramp” costume, beginning with the hat.

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But then you have the women. On the female, the bowler hat moves from an object of comedy or ridicule to something sexy, even forbidding.

It seems in every dance revue–whether a toddlers’ dance recital or the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall–there is one number where the females are dressed in stockings and shorts, tux shirts and ties…and a bowler hat. The hat acts as a prop, an accessory and the dancers put them on and off, dance with them held in front or waving above their heads.

In the film Cabaret, Sally Bowles is played by Liza Minnelli–perhaps the greatest role of her career. And while the film is certainly different than the play –and the novels from whichcabaret it was drawn–it is Minnelli that people most closely associate with Cabaret and Sally Bowles. Straddling a chair, her bowler hat rakishly tilted on her head, Bowles lustily sings and performs at the Kit Kat Klub in Berlin as the Third Reich begins its ascent. She–and the cabaret she works at–are the very symbols of the sexuality and decadence that the Nazi’s demonize in their rise to power, symbols of the “other” that the Nazis want to purge.

And in Minnelli’s performance, it is the bowler hat that represents this decadence–a symbol of transgression, of otherness, of living life as SHE wants it.

(Please note: I know that there have been extraordinary actresses who have taken on the role of Sally Bowles on the stage, from Julie Harris and Judi Dench to Natasha Richardson and Brooke Shields to Emma Stone and Michelle Williams. But still it is Minnelli’s film version that has the most resonance with the most people.)

Just as Sally Bowles performs her cabaret in Berlin during the Nazis’ rise to power, so too is Sabina creating her art as the Soviet Union crushes the Czech Spring in Milos Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Although we have moved from 1920 Berlin to 1960s Prague,  the same tensions exist–the forces of love, freedom, and humanity in opposition to the bureaucratic autocracy of the State. This time the state is the USSR.

For the painter Sabina, her bowler is a sort of fetish–a memory of her grandfather and a quirk of her sexuality. It is very much a part of her.   Kundera describes Sabina’s hat as such:

The bowler hat was a motif in the musical composition that was Sabina’s life. It returned again and again, each time with a different meaning, and all the meanings flowed through the bowler hat like water through a riverbed. … each time the same object would give rise to a new meaning, though all former meanings would resonate (like an echo, like a parade of echoes) together with the new one.

Thus the bowler hat has apotheosized from a mere garment and quirky accessory to something much more. And in the politically charged world of Prague in 1968, that tumblr_mdy9zuvYH01rhlu7wo1_500something more is crucial to life, to a sense of independence, to a sense of identity. And on Lena Olin, who played Sabina in the 1988 film version of the book, it also looks incredibly sexy.

So whether it accompanies John Cleese’s ungainly stride within the Ministry of Silly Walks or Lena Olin steaming up scenes in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, one finds that the bowler fills both extremes–from the ridiculous to the erotic.  That often seems to be the divide.

That is until you bring in Alex from A Clockwork Orange. And then it’s a whole different story…

a-clockwork-orange

 

 

Clockwork Orange and City of Bohane

The Guardian had an article today noting the 50th Anniversary of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. Mind you, it is the anniversary of the book not Stanley Kubrick’s iconic movie, which has taken on a life of its own.

I first read the novel when I was seventeen. I read it a month later when I learned there was an edition with a glossary in the back. The glossary didn’t enhance the read that much; everything could be inferred from context  without too much trouble. (I had heard the glossary was only in the American edition, but I am not positive of that.) Anyway, what I remember most was the language: it was playful, edgy, smart, and alive. It was a mixture of joycean word play, street jive, cockney, rhyming, Slavic slang. And it was what set me off reading a lot of Burgess, from the Enderby novels to the majestic Napoleon’s Symphony to the various autobiographies.

The movie was another thing.  I was hitch-hiking across Canada from Vancouver to Toronto and winter was coming on a lot earlier than it came where I was from. It was only the last week of August, but we woke up under a thin sheet of snow in Regina.  Earlier, to stay out of the cold, and since nothing seemed to be coming along Canada’s Highway 1, we went into the town of Regina and bought tickets to see Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. It was very stylish and engrossing, with a narrative that I already knew.  I don’t remember now being struck by the ultra-violence. I do remember the music and the Skinner-like experiments and the tragic ending.  

But anyway, today, in their piece on the 50th anniversary of the book, the Guardian said this:

Fifty years ago today, Anthony Burgess published his ninth novel, A Clockwork Orange. Reviewing it in the Observer, Kingsley Amis called the book “the curiosity of the day.” Five decades later there is still nothing like it.

I beg to differ.

Kevin Barry’s first novel, The City of Bohane is channeling Burgess big time.  Set in a dystopian future, in what could be an unrecognizable Dublin of 2053, it is full of violence, sex, drugs, and turf wars. And again, the language  is at the forefront. Here is Barry describing DeValera Street:
[DeValera Street] leases are kept cheap and easy– bucksee enterprises appear overnight and fold as quick. There are soothsayers,. There are purveyors of goat’s blood cures for marital difficulties. There are dark caverns of record stores specialising in ancient  calypso 78s –oh we have an old wiggle to the hip in Bohane, if you get us going at all. There are palmists. There are knackers selling combination socket wrench sets. Discount threads are flogged from suitcases mounted on bakers’ pallets, there are cages of live poultry, and trinket stores devoted gaudily to the worship of the Sweet Baba Jay. There are herbalists, and veg stalls, and poolhalls. Such is the life of DeValera Street… .

Here again is Barry introducing Girly Hartnett, the 90-year old matriarch of the major family:

Here was Girly, after the picture show, drugged on schmaltz, in equatorial heat beneath the piled eiderdowns, a little whiskey-glazed and pill-zapped, in her ninetieth–Sweet Baba help us–Bohane winter, and she found herself with the oddest inclination.

I always found the world of A Clockwork Orange to be too sterile, too sharp-edged, even the thugs were dressed in sparkling white.  Bohane City is many things, but sterile it is not.  There is a richness of detail, texture, smell. Even in memory, Alex and his droogies seem too slick compared to the denizens of Bohane. For in this dystopic future, the world has not been re-shaped by technology–in fact, technology is surprisingly absent.  There is an elevated train, but no cars. Communication is done face-to-face…and at times angry-face-to-angry-face. Newspaper writers get their stories in pubs or brothels; the hunchback photographer pegs his developing photos in a morbid array across a room.  Although this is the future, it is not one overrun with gadgets!

The violence is real–but somehow not graphic. The economy runs on sex, alcohol, and drugs. There is an outer world, beyond the pale, but it doesn’t intervene, seemingly content to let Bohane run its own violent course.

And it is so, so visual.

Here’s a description of the major characters as they prepare for the momentous battle at the center of the novel:

“Logan Hartnett [the albino leader of the Bohane Trace] suavely walked the ranks and he offered his smiles and his whispers of encouragement. There was confidence to be read in the sly pursing of his lips, and atop a most elegant cut of an Eyetie suit he wore, ceremonially, an oyster-grey top hat.”

“Fucker Burke was bare-armed beneath a denim waistcoat and wore his finest brass-toed bovvers.”

“Jenni Ching carried a spiked ball on a chain and swung it over her head. She wore an all-in-one black nylon jumpsuit, so tightly fitted it might have been applied with a spray-can, and she smoked a black cheroot to match it, and her mouth was a hard slash of crimson lippy.”

“Wolfie Stanners, however, was widely acknowledged to have taken the prize. Wolfie was dressed to kill in an electric-blue ska suit and white vinyl brothel-creepers with steel toecaps inlaid. Four shkelps were readied on a custom-made cross-belt.”

[Macu–Logan’s wife–wore] “a pair of suede capri pants dyed to a shade approaching the dull radiance of turmeric, a ribbed black top of sheer silk that hugged her lithe frame, a wrap of golden fur cut from an Iberian lynx…and…an expression unreadable.”

My god, look at the attention to clothing–not futuristic, Buck Rogers’ one-pieces, but clothing that has been taken from a vibrant past.  It is as if the costume designers from Game of Thrones, Gangs of New York, and My Fair Lady got together to outfit the cast for this rumble.

And what City of Bohane also has that A Clockwork Orange doesn’t  is a love story.  Granted it is a story of disappointed love and jealous love and abandoned love, but the emotions of these characters are real and painful and poignant. For  while Logan Hartnett and his antagonist, the Broderick Gant, may have run the machinery of their town with brutality and violence, they are both bowed when set against the forces of love.

Now there’s something to pass on to Alex and his droogies!