Gilbey on film: A matter of life and death

Kazuo Ishiguro and the cinema of mortality.

According to Stephen King, the first contact he ever had with Stanley Kubrick came shortly before the director filmed his adaptation of King's novel The Shining. (Which, by the by, gives me a great excuse to link to this fake trailer, much-circulated but still hugely amusing, imagining that bright-lit horror as a cockle-warmer à la Regarding Henry or A Good Year or Dan in Real Life.) King tells the story of how Kubrick called out of the blue one morning to posit the theory that all works of the supernatural must be inherently hopeful because they propose that there is life after death.

This thought occurred to me a few weeks ago while I was watching Biutiful, which is approximately 99 per cent grim, with a crucial 1 per cent of hope provided by the knowledge that all the suffering endured by the characters will be followed by serenity -- at least if there's any truth in the brief glimpse the film gives us of the afterlife. The spirit may begin its journey clinging to the ceiling, like something nasty you get in your hotel room on a cheap package holiday to Gran Canaria, but at least one dead character ends his days in a peaceful, snow-covered woodland clearing, which stands in stark contrast to the rest of the film's locations: sweatshops, funeral parlours, immigrant detention centres and cramped urban apartments at which even a battery hen would turn up its beak.

Another, more transparently reassuring film about the afterlife -- Clint Eastwood's Hereafter (the placatory spiritual content of which is discussed here) -- also opened last week. Put aside the latter picture's shameless piggybacking on disasters natural (the 2004 tsunami) and man-made (the London bombings on 7 July 2005) and it's clear that Hereafter is providing a necessary and traditional service. On one hand such movies offer the same balm in troubled times as a great work such as A Matter of Life and Death, which in 1946 reassured audiences grieving over wartime losses that an afterlife resembling their mortal existence, right down to the meddlesome bureaucracy, awaited them at the top of a vast staircase. But there is always the question of tone: while Powell and Pressburger's film brings a warm, wry wit to bear on its fantasy, and leaves ample space for the viewer's good-natured incredulity, Hereafter depends for its success on being watched straight; in that context, it leaves you feeling you've been taken for a sucker.

At the other end of the scale on the subject of spirituality and the afterlife is the forthcoming adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, which opens on 11 February. Look out for it: despite the shocking snub it received from Bafta, and the fact that its distributor is effectively throwing in the towel by releasing it on the same day as the Coen brothers' True Grit, with which it will compete for the same audience, it has much to recommend it. Certain details from Ishiguro's novel have been compromised: the main character, for example, has been weirdly stripped of her sexual promiscuity in the apparent interests of good taste, while a key moment pertaining to the title has been completely undermined.

But what remains undiminished is the source material's staggeringly sane perspective in the face of death. The film's director Mark Romanek has already explored death and its attendant taboos from unusual angles -- first in his whimsical 1985 debut Static (a highly original work which, outrageously, he now omits from his CV) and then in the mighty video he directed for "Hurt" by Johnny Cash. Without lessening the cosmic dread around the subject, Never Let Me Go brings to it a sense of resolution, even positivity.

Some reviews of the novel were understandably circumspect in discussing the story's surprises, which were revealed only gradually, but I can say upfront -- because the film does -- that it begins at a boarding school for children who have been cloned to provide organ donations when they reach adulthood. As the characters grow up, their struggle to come to terms with their premature deaths (well, premature to us, but natural to them) mirrors the futile wrestling match with mortality in which we all engage.

"I think we're offering a fairly optimistic story," Ishiguro told me last year.

"How the characters behave to each other provides an optimistic view of human nature. They're not all fighting for their little bit, they're not grasping at material possessions; what they really care about is each other, and if they've done something wrong they want to apologise and put it right. That's why the bleak backdrop is there. It's so we can watch what matters to people when they know they're down to their last few moments. There's a big metaphor about mortality, the human lifespan, in the book but for me the point of the story isn't to say, 'Look folks, we're all going to die, just wanted to remind you!' It's not that. It's more that given we only have limited time, how should we use it? What's actually important? What are human beings like?"

Never Let Me Go is released on 11 February.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism