June 01, 2009

AWRF 2009: Christos talking

Campbell from the readers services team was at "An hour with Christos Tsiolkas", chaired by Charlotte Grimshaw. Here is his dispatch from the front (third row from):

I turn up late and the woman at the door takes my ticket, says I can get it back after the talk. I was planning to use it as a bookmark. I take my seat third row from the front to the right of the podium. Somebody left a handbag under the seat next to me, possibly the woman who is doing the introduction. I forgot to wear my glasses but my blurry impression is that she has a nice haircut and facial structure. Christos is wearing matching black shirt and jeans, which have faded to an almost identical degree. They sit and Christos is asked questions about the new book ('The Slap'). He speaks of the effect of wealth on the Australian people and an incident involving offensive youths in public. I think about a similar incident I witnessed last time I was in Australia. He has anger in his voice, includes many umms, and errs but there is urgency to the way he speaks which I like. His jeans are loose fitting and bunch up around his shoes. I think about my own jeans, how I have folded up the bottoms of the legs because they are too long. He stands at the podium and reads from ‘The Slap’. I try to remember watching ‘Head On’ when I was younger but the memory is cloudy. He sits down and answers more questions. He is complimented on his ability to write about sex from the female perspective. The audience giggles. He reads from an older book called 'Dead Europe'. He seems to be more passionate about this book. The talk ends with questions from the audience. Two questions are asked; the first he answers with ease but the second is more difficult and is cut short due to time issues. This is disappointing. I leave the talk and struggle through the crowd of people waiting. There is a long line of people within the crowd waiting to have their books signed.

AWRF 2009: Meeting Tsiolkas

Saturday afternoon I was driving lackadaisically down New North Rd. when a dangling sign caught my eye. “Mt. Albert Veterinary Centre”.  I pictured Aisha on duty inside, looking Michelle Obama-style gorgeous in a white lab coat. And Connie was there too, sitting on a bench, detachedly wiggling her toes in dirty pink shoes. A second later, as the sign jumped to my rear-view mirror, I realized that Aisha and Connie live in Melbourne, and also, they are characters in a novel.

A quote that’s gotten a lot of publicity about The Slap, the book in which they appear, is that it’s a satanic “Neighbours”. I haven’t seen "Neighbours"; still, I’ve done a fair amount of TV in my life and my intuition is that it is far more correct to say that "Neighbours" is a vapidThe Slap.

Christos Tsiolkas - image by Zoe Ali. For this book about modern Australia, after he wrote about old Europe in Dead Europe, Christos Tsiolkas used what he calls a Rashomon structure, after the classic Japanese movie which tells the story of a rape from many points of view. Here the rape is a slap, although the turmoil it creates among these Australian suburbanite twenties-thirties-somethings implies the inverse. The fact is, they don’t have an awful lot of other things going on to distract them. They aren’t very perceptive. They are greedy. They aren’t very likable. But I loved seeing inside their heads. It became impossible to put the book down: I was rushing downstream on the current of its revelations.

“I like the teenagers and the old man.” Christos Tsiolkas says to me when I get to talk to him. The ‘s’ sound is the particularity of the Greek language, there are lots of them, and they are softer than ours, sliding almost into ‘sh’ . Christos Tsiolkas has that ‘s’ when he speaks English. He speaks quickly, and he laughs easily and he says “Manolis-sh” for Manolis, who is that old man. He explains that he put Manolis-sh in because he wanted a character who would bring gravity into his story. I was reminded of the sweeping judgment a famous Italian architect delivered when they asked him why there were so few great women architects. “Women have no sense of the grave.” he said. The Greek words for ‘grave’ are sovaros – severe, austeros -- austere, and agrios – cruel, fierce and proud. 

Christos Tsiolkas is not grave but -- to use a Gertrude-Steinian turn of phrase -- I sense he has a sense of the grave. His literary love is Philip Roth, that author famed for being witty about sex, but also about death. The day after talking to CT, I came across a shiny new copy of Exit Ghost at the library, and I thought of him and opened it to have a look.
“You’re writing about the family business, are you?”

He nodded and he shrugged and he sighed. “And the family. I’m trying to, anyway. I more or less grew up in the store.  I’ve heard a thousand stories from my grandfather. Every time I go to see him I fill another notebook. I’ve got stories enough to last a lifetime. But it’s all a matter of how, isn’t it? I mean, how you tell them.”

Read the interview with Christos Tsiolkas.

AWRF 2009: Stefan Aust

To hear Der Spiegel editor Stefan Aust would be interesting anyway, but when I found out that he had written the ‘seminal work’ on the Baader-Meinhof gang, that was when I knew I had to be there. This man quit his job and spent three years researching and writing The Baader-Meinhof Complex, so determined was he to get the story on this band of radical left-wing terrorists who for ten years splattered Germany with violent deaths, finally including, for the leaders, their own.

At their own hands or not? This was the question. An attempt to spring them from prison by hijacking a Lufthansa flight and using the passengers as ransom had failed when German commandos stormed the plane in Mogadishu and freed the passengers. The next morning, all over Europe the papers screamed “Baader, Ensslin and Raspe dead!” The verdict of the authorities: they had committed suicide in their cells in the ultra-security wing of Stammheim Prison, the two men by shooting themselves, Ensslin by hanging herself with electrical wire.

All the time I lived in Europe, I and everyone I knew took it for granted that this had been an execution decided by the Germans to obviate further death-seminating attempts to free them. We laughed: how could the inmates, strip-searched each day after their appearances in court or visits with lawyers, have gotten guns? How could they, in isolation in sound-proof cells, have arranged a collective suicide? “Can you believe those Germans?” we’d say. “They know the whole world knows they killed them and they just don’t care.”

Now I finally had the chance to hear from a German about it. I was on a high as I headed through the doors into the darkened ASB and down the aisle to my usual close-up seat. I listened to Aust describe these “very special people”: Andreas Baader, “Brando in The Wild One, he could have been any kind of outlaw”, Gudrun Ensslin, the "hypermoral" pastor’s daughter, and Ulrike Meinhof, the celebrity journalist and “intolerant individual who thought she knew things better than others” who made the choice to go underground with them. “They became famous because she was so famous.”  To put it in a New Zealand context, Kim Hill with a SIG P210 pistol next to her typewriter.

Their credo “We are marching towards a fascist state and we need to act now" led to dozens of kidnappings, robberies, bombings, murders, and eventually their capture and imprisonment. During the trial, there were signs that Meinhof may have been thinking of disassociating; to the judges she hinted “if one wanted to speak” but it was ignored. Would it have gone differently if it hadn’t been, asked Aust, who had worked with her at konkret, the voice of the New Left in Germany. Depressed, bullied by the others – “If you’ve read Dostoevsky's The Demons, you can see the parallels, how they behaved to each other” -- one night she ripped up her towel and hanged herself.  In the margin of a notebook, a phrase about suicide as the final revolutionary act.

A year later, after the life sentences, after the third attempt to free them had failed, came the deaths of the other three founding members. To my amazement, Aust declares himself convinced that theirs really were suicides after all. He has the investigative details: how the guns were smuggled in, how they communicated; he has his intuition of what they would have done when they lost hope. He convinces me. Driving home after, it felt strange, like losing a ring you’ve worn for so long you don’t even think about it, except now your finger looks odd without it. But the three Italians I am out to dinner with the next night keep their rings and laugh. They don’t buy a word of it.

“Today,” Aust reflects, “the sympathy for the group which you could feel in the late 1970's has vanished – that idea people had that ‘They died for our ideas.’” A poll of Germans back then showed that 1 in 10 would have sheltered them if asked. It was only 30 years from the end of World War II. Old Nazis -- why do people say "ex", they hadn't resigned or anything -- were everywhere in prominent positions. Hanns Martin Schleyer, the president of the industrialists’ association whom the gang kidnapped in another attempt to spring Baader and Ensslin had been in the SS. Within hours of the collective suicide, he was driven to a wooded area, made to kneel, and shot through the head not once but three times.

Unlike the snotty reviewer from the Washington Post I came across inthe Guardian (why?), who calls it  “a simple tale of thugs in love with violence”, I see it as a tawdry and tragic tale of Shakespearean dimensions.  On a German website I found an interview with Irmgard Moller, found in her cell at Stammheim the morning of the collective suicide with four stab wounds to her chest and a bread knife beside her, in which she recalls the night’s events. I consulted that  Delphic oracle which they call internet translation, and read in awe the Macbethian hallucination that flashed onto the screen.

Before kidnapping in the evening someone went
of the attendants rum and the bulbs collected,
during the contact barrier it off simply the river turned.
I needed thus candles. I operated the record player
with batteries, that could be done. I wanted
to be somehow awake in any case, in order to hear
the first morning messages at six o'clock. In addition,
I was already completely overtired. I went then
in the cell a little back and forth, in order
not to fall asleep. But then I am sometime
nevertheless away-dawned...

AWRF 2009: Marcus Chown

Marcus Chown is the author of Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You and the only guest at the Festival whose media release doesn’t contain his picture.  He wears a t-shirt, jeans and trainers and is neither nerdy nor scary. He is able to speak very rapidly and keep a quizzical tone at the same time. If he were a particle, this superimposition of states would make him a schizophrenic entities quantum bit, or qubit. I learned this from reading his book.

My favourite piece was about why the night sky is black. It's not because the sun is on the other side of the earth. Think about it. On all sides of us the universe contains quadrillions of stars as bright or brighter than the sun. The reason the night sky is black is because the universe was only born 13.7 billion years ago, so the light from stars more than 13.7 billion light years away (the majority of them) simply hasn't reached us yet.

"Ever since the dawn of human history," Chown writes, "the fact that the Universe had a beginning has been staring us in the face in the darkness of the night sky. We have simply been too stupid to realise it."

That our Universe was born has always been impossible for me to comprehend even though I know it is so. I remember as a kid, lying in bed at night, trying to realise it, concentrating hard in a semi-pleasurable, semi-tormenting sort of tickling bout of the brain. The same thing with reading these books. Atoms can be in two places at the same time.  Nothing can catch up with light, even though its speed is not infinite. Maybe there is only one electron in the whole universe, just moving incredibly fast.

What I really like about Marcus Chown, in his book and even more so when I got to speak to him in person, is the way he is sincerely happy about all those things out there which we cannot explain because we simply lack the language to do so.  "I find it exciting”, he says to me. “The universe we’ve discovered is far stranger than anything we could have invented or imagined."

Will we ever know the answer to the question, where did our Universe came from? Not only is Marcus Chown absolutely sure we will, but you won’t believe what he says about when.

Read the whole conversation at the top of the Crowne Plaza Hotel (from which we descended a little less old than had we been down with the festival-goers at the ASB).

AWRF 2009: The Next 100 Years

When I'd see the name Hendrik Hertzberg in The New Yorker writing about American politics, I always pictured a somewhat plump and owlish fellow, sort of a Pierre from War and Peace. I had a lineage imagined for him too; he would have moved to the United States as a boy with his family when his father became US correspondent for a Dutch newspaper, grown up in New York, decided to stay on. His mother would have been named Monique.

Imagine my surprise then when not only did he turn out to be known as "Rick" but ambled out for his "Hour with" wearing -- not just, but most noticeably -- a blue blazer, a yellow silk tie with tiny blue dots, and cowboy boots. His hair was longish and grayish and worn in an unstyled-look style, and he was very American and cheeky in that great American tradition of Mark Twain a hundred years ago, continuing through to Bill Maher today -- both with longish gray hair, come to think of it.

"What perils of his nature do you think Pres. Obama is susceptible to?" a member of the audience asked him. "I guess his rationality," he replied. "He's been compared a lot to Dr. Spock. I don't know. Do you have a few suggestions?" 
I was right that his father was a journalist, with a respected career which actually did include a stint as a "special correspondent" for a foreign newspaper, but he was an American -- a child of immigrant Jews who worked in Manhattan's garment district --and the paper was the Hindustan Times. The appointment grew out of a personal friendship with Gandhi, forged when he visited India as part of the American Famine Mission. His son points to the figure of Gandhi as "a part of my mental apparatus since childhood" and his first story for The New Yorker was on the 100th anniversary of Gandhi's birth. He ventures at a certain point "If the Palestinians had embraced Gandhi's non-violence, they would have a thriving state right now."

For the AWRF 2009 finale, a panel of writers gave us readers their predictions for "The next 100 years". Marcus Chown foretold that we'd find life on Mars, Mohammed Hanif requested that we remember about water supply on Earth, and so on. The one I enjoyed the most was Rick Hertzberg, funny, thought-provoking, going for the imaginative risk. Here they are, what Hendrik Hertzberg thinks will happen in the next 100 years:

  1. There will be wars
  2. Someone will set off a nuclear device somewhere in the world, probably in a populated area
  3. America will throw off the Westminster parliamentary system in a peaceful revolution and follow New Zealand in experimenting with new kinds of elections (in particular this means proportional representation, which Hertzberg is a big fan of)
  4. I don't think it will be another American century. It will be a Chinese century
  5. Revealed religion will decline and religion will distill into something more dangerous and it will probably involve a fight.

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