Book of the month

Director traps enemies with a play

In Canadian writer Margaret Atwood's spin on The Tempest, an ousted theatre director gets an opportunity for revenge in a prison play

FICTION

HAG-SEED

By Margaret Atwood

Hogarth Shakespeare/ Paperback/ 289 pages/ $29.95/ Books Kinokuniya/4/5 stars

In the recent spate of retellings of William Shakespeare's plays, it could be Canadian writer Margaret Atwood's spin on The Tempest that hews closest to the spirit of the original.

The Bard, she reminds us, was no classic in his day, but rather a struggling actor-manager who literally lived or died depending on the whims of a largely working-class audience.

In Hag-Seed, the latest in a series of Shakespeare retellings commissioned for the 400th anniversary of his death, Atwood sets the action in a prison. Her enchanter Prospero is Felix Phillips, a theatre director renowned for his radical takes on Shakespeare - think Pericles with spaceships and aliens or A Winter's Tale with a vampiric twist.

At the height of his success, he is brought low by the machinations of his right-hand man Tony and the death of his young daughter, Miranda.

Short on options, he becomes the head of a literacy programme in a men's prison. Every year, he directs a cast of convicts in a production of a Shakespeare play.

His shot at vengeance arrives when the prison receives a visit from Tony, now the Heritage Minister, and the other figures involved in his downfall.

To ensnare them, Felix crafts his own adaptation of The Tempest, the play he was about to put on in his daughter's name before he was ousted.

Atwood unpacks the play's themes so thoroughly that the book could double as a teaching aide. Through Felix's efforts to make Shakespeare's island fantasy palatable to hardened inmates, the reader gains a plethora of new readings. The sprite Ariel, for instance, is reimagined as a stranded alien superhero, while the heroine Miranda goes from fragile damsel to athletic wild child. She is played in the prison production by the wiry Anne-Marie Greenland, a struggling dancer whose life was also ruined when Tony pulled the plug on Felix's original Tempest.

The prisoners find their own points of resonance in the characters. Young hacker 8Handz plays Ariel to Felix's Prospero both onstage and behind the scenes, as his technical expertise makes the final trap possible.

The misshapen outcast Caliban, from whose epithet Hag-Seed the novel draws its name, gains the greatest popularity among the inmates, many of whom identify with his life of hard labour and abuse.

Atwood makes a cogent argument for the redeeming effects of Shakespeare on offenders.

She falls flat, however, in her attempts to prove she is hip to the groove by having the inmates write their own rap versions of the play.

Rap and The Tempest are no strange bedfellows. British rapper Kate Tempest, for instance, has come up with some stunning verses about the play from which she draws her nom de plume.

Atwood's grasp of rap, however, extends mainly to rhyming endings laced with the occasional profanity.

Her attempts come across not so much Dr Dre as Doctor Seuss, and this does scant justice to her convict characters. This - and the implausible ease with which the plot resolves itself - undermines an otherwise compelling novel that pays tribute to the metatheatrical qualities of Shakespeare's original.

Felix asks the inmates to find him all the prisons in The Tempest. They identify eight, but there is in fact a ninth - the play itself.

At its end, Prospero addresses the audience directly: "As you from crimes would pardoned be, let your indulgence set me free."

Atwood adds her voice to increasing efforts to return Shakespeare, too long constrained by the trappings of high literature, to where he belongs - read freely by the masses.

If you like this, read: Nutshell by Ian McEwan (Vintage, 2016, $29.56, Books Kinokuniya), a revised Hamlet set in modern-day London, told from the point of view of a foetus in the womb as his mother and uncle plot to kill his father.


FICTION

BLACK WATER

By Louise Doughty

Faber & Faber/Paperback/352 pages/ $28.50 before GST/Books Kinokuniya, Times and Popular/4/5 stars

Four years ago, Louise Doughty visited the Ubud literary festival and was kept awake all night by the sounds of cicadas and geckos.

This year, the British writer returned to the same festival with a novel inspired by that sleepless night.

Black Water observes the history of Indonesia from World War II to the destabilising Asian financial crisis of the 1990s. The book's candid imagining of the riots and bloodshed in 1965, after a failed coup to depose then-president Sukarno, was so likely to set off official red alarms that Doughty's sessions in Ubud were billed without a description of the story.

Black Water begins with analyst John Harper frightened and awake in a hut up a mountain in Bali. He is convinced that he will soon be hacked to death by machete-wielding men as retribution for past mistakes.

The nature of Harper's work is deliberately vague. His firm informs clients back in the West whether to invest in Indonesia. Sometimes, the firm manipulates conditions to the benefit of investors.

Harper's job runs the gamut from analysing the country's economy to cultivating gangsters and mid-level politicos. Occasionally, he drops off instructions or packages to one or the other. Sometimes, he does a little more.

Doughty came to fame in 2013 with the taut thriller Apple Tree Yard, a feminist indictment of Britain's criminal justice system. Black Water displays a different side of the author's range. It is still a thriller, but paints a landscape rather than an intimate portrait.

Harper embodies Indonesia and the colonial forces that have shaped the country. He is half-Dutch, half- Indonesian. He was brought up in the United States and Europe. He returns as a representative of those economic powers to oversee, and profit from, the country of his birth.

Water is a recurring literary device, urging on the story. Harper's identity is fluid and his depths rarely plumbed by his wife or any of his acquaintances. This is not of his choosing. Like Indonesia, he is adrift, subject to larger currents.

His widowed mother is denied her husband's pension since she is not Indonesian, so a ship takes her and her child away from Indonesia and to the US, where she remarries.

Harper finds happiness with a new family involved in the civil rights movement, but again, water moves him on to Europe and farther.

Black Water cocks a snook at old-school espionage as written by lad's lad like Ian Fleming. Harper has no licence to kill. If he meets a woman in a bar, just as James Bond might, she is a middle-aged teacher who inspires Harper to dream of domesticity, not one-night stands.

Given Harper's rootlessness, the reader hopes for a happy ending even as the psychological tension increases, making one doubt he will live that long.

The author skilfully blends hope and horror all the way to the conclusion, making it hard for readers to decide which ending Harper has been given. The nuanced writing makes the choice so difficult that one can expect to be up all night pondering it.

If you like this, read: Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien (Granta, 2016, $29.95, major bookstores), about people moulded by the Tiananmen Square protests and other major events in 20th- century China.

Akshita Nanda


FICTION

HERE I AM

By Jonathan Safran Foer

Hamish Hamilton/Paperback/571 pages/$23.93/ Books Kinokuniya/4/5 stars

As a marriage falls apart in a cushy Washington, D.C. townhouse, oceans away, Israel is crumbling after a devastating earthquake in the Middle East unites the Arab world against the country.

In his third novel, Jonathan Safran Foer - whose calling card has always been his ability to tease personal tales of pain, loss and self-discovery from the political - draws striking parallels between the disintegration of Jacob and Julia Bloch's relationship and the destruction of a spiritual homeland.

These twin disasters shake Jacob, an award-winning novelist now writing for television, to the core, challenging his Jewish identity, masculinity and understanding of home.

His already strained relationship with his wife snaps when she discovers a series of dirty texts he has sent to a colleague.

Meanwhile, the prime minister of Israel is calling for Jewish men from around the world to "come home" and take up the fight against Muslim nations waging war against the country.

But Jacob is dragging his heels. This is despite being dogged by a father who happens to be a rabidly pro- Israel blogger, a Holocaust survivor grandfather, a macho cousin visiting from Israel and three precocious sons - one of them on the brink of his bar mitzvah. And so he must struggle with his new life and the bleak realisation that he has not lived up to what is expected of him: as a husband, a father, a man and a Jew.

Coming 11 years after Foer's last novel, Here I Am is a satisfying comeback and his most polished work yet.

It contains all the hallmarks of a Foer novel: hyper- articulate children, ruminations on identity and belonging and a gloomy, big-picture backdrop.

There are lashings of style, too, with one section of the novel made up mainly of speeches made by the leaders of Israel and Iran, and another on the quotidian rituals of married life punctuated by a string of increasingly sleazy text messages.

Foer's dialogue, already sparkling in his first two books, is livelier than ever and the rich spread of characters treads the thin line between being entertaining and being human.

While his debut novel Everything Is Illuminated (2002) dealt with the legacy of the Holocaust, and Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close (2005) grappled with the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, Foer turns the tables this time around, grounding the personal drama not in real life, but in a fictional political crisis. It has given him greater control and scope in creating the tensions and chaos that reshape Jacob and his family's experiences.

But the novel, which weighs in at almost 600 pages, could do with a little more paring.

Here I Am lapses too often into self-indulgent descriptions of the mundane, among them a blow-by-blow account of the cleansing routines of husband and wife and lavish details about home furnishing.

It is only due to his powers of storytelling - his ability to weave in moments of surprising humour and lightness and to subvert expectations - that you would wade through paragraphs dedicated to the mind-numbingly banal to discover the fate that awaits his characters - flawed, fumbling human beings still trying to figure themselves out.

If you like this, read: The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon (Random House, 2001, $21.39, Books Kinokuniya), a warm and stylish Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about two Jewish cousins who become big names in the comics industry, amid the dawn and end of World War II.

Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh


NON-FICTION

ABSOLUTELY ON MUSIC: CONVERSATIONS WITH SEIJI OZAWA

By Haruki Murakami, translated by Jay Rubin

Vintage Publishing/Hardback/352 pages/$25.56/ Popular Bookstore/3.5/5 stars

Absolutely On Music, a series of conversations on classical music between Haruki Murakami and acclaimed conductor Seiji Ozawa, has a slightly dissonant ring to it.

"Absolutely" is all-encompassing; "on music" has a generalist slant. Yet, it is an oddly appropriate title for a set of discussions that are earnest but have few penetrating insights.

Murakami's passion for jazz and classical music finds its way into all of his books. And here, his knowledge of all sorts of details about musicians, records and different performances is nothing short of impressive.

Conversations revolving around a particular piece of music - often a well-known one by Beethoven or Brahms - alternate with brief "interludes" dealing with more general topics such as record-collecting.

Maestro Ozawa, 81, working since the 1960s with the top orchestras of the world, sheds light on the process of conducting music and how orchestras have evolved over his career, and offers glimpses into the backstories of the musical world. For example, he reveals what it was like working with American conductor Leonard Bernstein and mentions that the legendarily eccentric and reclusive pianist Glenn Gould once invited him to his house.

Perhaps owing to his gentlemanly reticence, details of the latter encounter are shared with Murakami, but omitted from print.

But rarely does the respectful amiability of Murakami and Ozawa's conversations give way to deeper digging or impassioned debate: The details readers learn are in many ways interesting, but hardly provoking. 

The book is not difficult for beginners if they accept it on its terms. Murakami never received musical training and can barely read a music score and so includes little technical jargon. 

But the sensual pleasures of his prose are ever present.

Boston Symphony's performance of Mahler's First Symphony, third movement, resembles "a leisurely tour in a chauffeur-driven Mercedes-Benz"; playing the cadenza in Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 In C Minor in 1982, Rudolf Serkin sounds "like he's climbing a hill with a load on his back".

While he sometimes makes a greater effort to collect his thoughts, for instance, when he suggests that "the most important thing in writing is 'rhythm'", all too often the book, full of wide-ranging references, had one wishing for deeper, more sustained discussion of specific topics. Still, it is likely to strike the occasional chord with novices as well as lovers of classical music, prompting them to discover new pieces or revisit familiar ones.

It will also probably appeal to Ozawa's and Murakami's fans.

Like What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (2008), also by Murakami, Absolutely On Music makes no attempt to preach or persuade. But it might well encourage those already willing to be "converted" to make their forays into the world of classical music. You don't have to be an expert - all you need to do is listen.

If you like this, read: Parallels And Paradoxes: Explorations In Music And Society (Vintage Books, 2002, $32.54, Books Kinokuniya), an intimate conversation on music and politics between Edward Said and the Israeli director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim.

Toh Wen Li


NON-FICTION

KNOWN AND STRANGE THINGS

By Teju Cole

Faber & Faber/Paperback/383 pages/$26.75 without GST/ Books Kinokuniya/4/5 stars

In the preface to his collection of essays, New York Times photography critic Teju Cole quotes Irish poet Seamus Heaney.

Cole says the stories in these essays are a recounting of what made him feel like the "hurry through which known and strange things pass".

Then, Heaney was referring to a windy Saturday afternoon drive, which stirred him to the beauty of a place. Here, the gentle "hurry" of these 55 essays go beyond place as they are grounded in the erudition of a well-travelled Renaissance Man, who can join the dots easily between photography, art, travel, politics and history.

Cole, who is Nigerian-American, takes the reader through a dizzying variety of subjects - from his account of meeting V.S. Naipaul, portrait photography in Mali, West Africa, to the Black Lives Matter movement.

His style is elegant, precise but casual. Take, for instance, how the three sections are titled - "reading things", "seeing things" and "being there", which loosely relate to literary criticism, visual culture and travelogues.

Art history-trained Cole wears several hats. He is the photography critic at the New York Times magazine, a novelist as well as a photographer.

His expertise on photography is without a doubt the strength of the book. His patiently probing descriptions of favourite photographs and the accounts of the laborious process of making his photographs are to be savoured. I found them as illuminating as John Berger's seminal Ways Of Seeing (1972) in teasing out the mysteries of looking at photographs.

In his essay Portrait Of A Lady, he highlights the early photographs which Africans took of one another, as opposed to the images of "natives" made by Europeans.

He also provides an alluring description of the self-possession and confidence of the West African women in the photographs of Malian photographers Seydou Keita and Malick Sidibe. Their elaborate dresses are "tableaux vivants of assertive elegance". Their gazes are fixed ahead, but not at the camera.

Cole's famous essay, The White Saviour Industrial Complex, is reproduced in the book, discussing a viral documentary made by an American charity about Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony's abduction of children. Like many detractors, Cole delves deep into the video's simplification of the issues, but mainly highlights that its attitude of insufferable condescension is pervasive in white Americans.

However, his self-assuredness in writing about photography is less present in his essays about politics.

Cole is clear on his goals as a writer, asserting that "my goal is to leave the reader not knowing what to think".

There are, however, some contemporary issues, such as race in America, where he could be more forthright. For example, he says he does not oppose Americans making donations to Africa in principle. He suggests that "if Americans want to care about Africa, maybe they should consider evaluating American foreign policy". Why the "maybe"?

Nevertheless, his book tackles head-on some important questions about our culture and society today, such as what is the fate of photography in an era of Instagram overabundance? What do we do with a thrilling conflict photograph, which is also an image of pain?

Cole answers these questions with nuance, which makes his writings on politics seem more inhibited. However, this same quality makes his writing on photography especially rich, as he walks the reader through the various moral and aesthetic complexities of the medium.

If you like this, read: On Photography by Susan Sontag (Picador, 2001/09, $26.41, Books Kinokuniya), which explores the psychology and social dynamics of photography in modern life.

Lee Xin En

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 06, 2016, with the headline 'Director traps enemies with a play'. Print Edition | Subscribe