Bringing up some Bodies, a little late

 I wrote this review of Mantel’s ‘Bring up the Bodies’ some months ago. 

Two months ago, I finished a much delayed reading of Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize Winner, ‘Wolf Hall’. Two hours ago, I closed the covers of its celebrated and much anticipated sequel, ‘Bring up the Bodies’. I can honestly say that my reaction to both was the same: why do some books have to end?

 In ‘Wolf Hall’, Mantel began a project she claims to have conceived nearly forty years ago: to chronicle the life and times of one of England’s most famously reviled figures, Thomas Cromwell. The first book ends with Anne Boleyn crowned Queen, and Cromwell basking in what seems to be reflected glory. The second book begins with quite the opposite: Anne’s star is falling, but it is clear that Cromwell in no manner intends to be tarnished by this. His own position in court and at the king’s side only gets more strongly cemented while the Queen and her cronies (incidentally the same men who had insulted the memory of Cromwell’s former employer, Cardinal Wolsey) bleed their ‘flat little presence(s)’ out upon freshly erected scaffolds.

 ‘Bring up the Bodies’ charts what an enthusiastic blurb writer has called ‘the bloody theatre of Anne’s final days’, drawing in its full complexity the role assumed by Cromwell in the execution and disposal of the king’s one time sweetheart. Mantel’s greatest achievement is the humanization of this political genius, a figure who has all too often been viewed as nothing more (and nothing less) than the epitome of the Renaissance Machiavel. Cromwell, in Mantel’s hands, loves and incites love; loses and grieves for those lost; feels anger, betrayal, fear, but also pride, loyalty, pity. With a sure, delicate hand, Mantel weaves the portrait of a man who fashioned his daughter a pair of peacock feather wings, but never ceases to remind us that it is the same man who witnessed, indeed, orchestrated, the perhaps undeserved and innocent death of a Queen of England.

 Though she is the pivotal point about which events in the book turn, Anne Boleyn herself has very little screen time. She is reported on, spied on, eavesdropped upon and repeated in third person, her words filtered through a number of (not entirely impartial) speakers before they are fed into Cromwell’s and the readers’ ears. In contrast to this stands Jane Seymour, who speaks considerably more, but is spoken of less. Jane, for all her quiet sharpness, remains an enigma, as mysterious and difficult to pin down as her unfortunate predecessor. Does she play a willing game with Henry, or is she a mere pawn in a political ploy much larger than herself? Much like the truth of Anne Boleyn’s crimes, the answer is what the reader chooses to make of it.

 It’s not every day that a writer can take an event that is so celebrated and investigated and hold it up to flash an entirely new light. Mantel takes over the history, takes over the once-living characters and gives them a verve and vitality that is all her own. It takes magic to make a reader sit on the edge of their seat in suspense when he or she knows (or is a mere Wikipedia page away from knowing) how the ‘story’ will end. For all the background reading I had done, all the pages of Anne Boleyn related text I had read, I was still waiting, breathless, for the sword to swing, hoping against hope, like Anne herself, that I would be mistaken: that history would rewrite itself in Mantel’s flowing language and that she would be saved.

 Alas, that did not happen. But it is a mark of Mantel’s genius that for a few moments, I forgot the bloody tracks of history.

 ‘Bring up the Bodies’ resounds with creative energy, its language compressing deeper allusions and metaphors that spangle out of the readers’ grasp just when focus is brought to bear upon them. The best way, I believe, to describe Mantel’s style is to quote Mantel herself. Here, Cromwell reflects on the work of Thomas Wyatt:

 When Wyatt writes, his lines fledge feathers, and unfolding this plumage they dive below their meaning and skim above it. They tell us that the rules of power and the rules of war are the same, the art is to deceive; and you will deceive, and be deceived in your turn, whether you are an ambassador or a suitor. Now, if a man’s subject is deception, you are deceived if you think you grasp his meaning. You close your hand as it flies away. A statute it written to entrap meaning, a poem to escape it. A quill, sharpened, can stir and rustle like the pinions of angels. Angels are messengers. They are creatures with a mind and a will.

 The inability to grasp and pin down meaning is exactly what the reader encounters in Mantel’s language. The narrative seems to skim the surface of a wealth of emotion and intrigue, dipping daintily into this swelter in order to paint a quaint picture of a bygone time. Beneath the words and the half-glimpsed gestures lies the morass of desire and danger that laces this court, a morass that Cromwell, like his creator, negotiates with grace and ease, giving hardly a hint of the scum his finely tailored robes have brushed through.

 Mantel seems to strive to be impartial, privileging neither Jane Seymour nor Anne in her novel, not making it clear whether she herself believes Anne to be guilty as fearfully charged. This is no easy feat- scores of novels and films have been built around this fantastic episode, each weighted either with blind admiration or withering disgust for the executed queen. Anne is passionate, but given to childish outbursts, admirably courageous but stupid and (at the close) self defeating. Jane is plain, quiet, but strangely acerbic. Her intelligence, cloaked for the most part behind placid boredom, is revealed in razor sharp repartee with Cromwell and her brothers. Witness this exchange:

 ‘My belief is,’ Edward says, ‘this modesty could pall. Look up at me, Jane. I want to see your expression.’

 ‘But what makes you think,’ Jane murmurs, ‘that I want to see yours?’

 I am a woman who wholeheartedly loves reading about and celebrating Anne Boleyn, and would throw my support behind the contemporary move to absolve her of all allegations (for more details, read Alison Weir’s excellent chronicle of Anne’s final days, ‘The Lady in the Tower’). And yet, even I could not hate Jane in this novel. I found myself admiring her, rather grudgingly, true, but admiring her nonetheless.

 One closes ‘Bring up the Bodies’ with a sense of having run a lengthy, tiring race. Your brain has been spinning alongside Cromwell’s for four hundred pages, watching its ceaseless convolutions as it churns out a plan to depose one queen and raise another. Your emotions have ravelled and unravelled through complicated skeins as you watch Henry and Anne pull together and then pull away from each other, a six year long courtship soured in what seems an instant of marriage. It is an exercise well worth undertaking, and one that I cannot wait to repeat when the third and (alas) final instalment of the Cromwell trilogy arrives.

 Until then, it’s back to the History books for me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In a boat with an adult Bengal Tiger

Three nights ago, I watched the Life of Pi movie.

In preparation for it, I read a bunch of reviews, whatever I could find online. One of them (Vulture) called it ‘transcendent’, another said it was ‘not long enough’ and yet another applauded the stunning visuals and noted that Ang Lee, celebrated director of Oscar winning films, had outdone himself. None made too much mention of the actors or the effectiveness with which Martel’s story had been translated on screen. I’ll make that my business then.

And just to get it out of the way- yes, the film is beautiful. It is spectacular, in the true sense of the word. There were so many moments at which I thought Ang Lee couldn’t possibly do better, only to be proved wrong within the next 15 minutes. It is visually probably the most lovely film you will ever see.

(The actual sinking of the ship and one shot within a swimming pool impressed me in particular.)

Though he is by no means the focus of the film (no actor is, really), Suraj Sharma does a wonderful job. It was so heartening to see that a first time teenage actor can be GOOD, that not all of them are cut of the cloth that made Kristin Stewart or Alia Bhatt. He was innocent and troubled when he needed to be, angst ridden and drained at other times, and overall, gave no indication that half the time, he was all alone in the filming sequence. He LOOKED like there was a tiger with him at all times, giving greater reality to the CG animal.

But again, like I said, the movie was certainly not actor-reliant. What propelled it was the overall cinematography. They could have cast any newcomer in the role, and if he had done a half-decent job, it would have worked. Kudos to Suraj for doing a more than half decent job.

The story- like I said earlier, when I read the book, I didn’t really ‘get’ it. The impact of that statement ‘When you look into an animal’s eyes, you see only the reflection of what you feel’, didn’t hit  me at all. In the movie however, there is a particular sequence that brings it out beautifully and vividly. I’m not going to spoiler it for you and tell you which one- but sufficeth to say that that was my favourite, favourite sequence of them all.

Richard Parker was amazingly lifelike. The friend I watched the movie with turned around at one point and asked ‘How did they train a tiger to DO all that?’. He didn’t even realize it was a CG device! While some may laugh at his naivete, I choose to look at it as a comment on the incredible richness and perfection of the CG animals in this movie. There was never a moment at which Richard Parker wasn’t moving or making a sound that a real Bengal Tiger wouldn’t have made. From little purrs to hacking roars to deep-throated growls, Richard Parker, or his supervising team, delivered.

The movie left me feeling curiously adrift and thoughtful, much like Pi was for most of its 125 minute length. It neither confirms nor denies the assertion that Pi’s father makes somewhere near the beginning, that animals do not have souls. Richard Parker is there for Pi at the most trying moment of his life, and without him, or whatever he represents, Pi would certainly not have survived. At the same time, you are never led to think of him as anything OTHER than a Bengal Tiger, a dangerous animal that you cannot turn your back on without great risk. He is not a pet, not a dog who will feel something like gratitude and look after you in turn. No, Richard Parker is a beast of the jungle, and he will never let you forget that.

‘Life of Pi’ is definitely a movie worth watching, and worth watching well, on the big-screen in 3D. Whether it’s the childish pleasure derived from watching flying fish nearly hit you, to appreciating the pure beauty of a whale breaking the ocean surface (and causing Pi to lose most of his provisions in the process), every image demands star treatment. It caters to everyone- those who want to be jolted into thinking about the deeper questions of the meaning of life, and those who just want to watch a good seafaring/adventure tale. Go see it, if you haven’t already.

The James Potter Complex

Author Note: I’m flexing my literary muscles after what seems forever. 

 

Let’s face it. We all want to be fictional characters at some point in our lives (those of us who are not Arjo at least) and the more literary (or neurotic) among us strive to emulate, sometimes unconsciously, our favourites. Fictional people are so, well, organized. They have their lives mapped out for them by someone else, they sometimes look like they got their perfection/beauty/intelligence/Achiever Status without really working for it and, best of all, even the dullest, the stupidest, the most horrifyingly banal of them can boast of having people interested in his thoughts. I know many people, me included, would love to have that particular honour.

 

 Since we cannot actually be them (or maybe we all are, really, and the Universe is one big novel-setting and history a novel in which case everything I’m writing becomes metafictional and therefore profound and too deep to be taken seriously) we strive to live like them. If I’m as cursed and earnest as Harry Potter, surely people will give a damn about what I’m up to? If I’m as flitty-flighty as Holly Golightly, surely I’ll leave a string of yearning men behind me? And if I’m as steadfast and innocent as Anastasia Steele, I’ll definitely win the heart of a man as broken, handsome and rich as Christian Gray.

 

 Yes, I went there and made the reference.

 

 Of course, there are characters none of us want to be: Josef K, Julien Sorel, Kurtz- but that’s a concern for another day.

 

( It is strange that most of the characters that spring to mind as undesirable Objects of Emulation are found within the covers of D.U. prescribed books.)

 

 Who we want to be also changes with time, of course, and not just because of the changing nature of the books we read. For instance, nine years ago I wanted to be Lanfear from the Wheel of Time books. I wanted to be beautiful and powerful and I was a budding megalomaniac. Now I want to be Egwene from the same universe- beautiful and powerful and at the top of my professional ladder at the tender age of 20. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem much chance of that happening.

 

 The people around me have ‘literarily’ grown up as well. The girls aren’t queuing up to be Belle from Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ or Ariel from ‘The Little Mermaid’. No, now we all, boys and girls alike, want to be one particular character, and we want to be him with a psychotic intensity that is profoundly disturbing.

 

 We all want to be James Potter.

 

 What’s that, you say? James Potter? Harry Potter’s DAD? Oh please, surely there are more popular choices in the series. Look at Hermione, Ron, Harry- even someone as random as Bill Weasley gets more screen time than James Potter.

 

 But I doubt anyone has had the effect that James has had on my budding psychoanalytical skills. Together, me and a friend diagnosed what we call the James Potter Complex, a serious condition that affects one out of every five Arts students in their postgrad.

 

 What are the characteristics of the James Potter Complex? Just think of James in his Hogwarts years, and you’ll start to get an idea of what I’m going to talk about. In case you are not familiar with the Potterverse, I will elaborate for you.

 

 James Potter is, to put it succinctly, bloody brilliant. He is top of his class, he is an ace Quidditch player, he has a band of loyal friends and an equally fabulous best friend[i], he is popular and, of course, he wins in the romance department as well. There is no category in which he loses out, unless you count his messy hair and nearsightedness, which I don’t.

 

 The best thing about him is his all-rounder status. He appears to be socially celebrated as well as academically brilliant- and he puts no apparent effort into the attainment of either status. When Sirius says he will be ‘surprised’ if he doesn’t get ‘an Outstanding at least’ in his DADA OWL exam, James drawls ‘me too’. Coming from him, we can believe it. He starts playing with a Snitch and bullying Snape right after the paper, while Remus tries to study for (what is presumably) an upcoming Transfiguration exam. James clearly has better things to do than cram for his board exams, but he will still do better than Remus probably ever will.

 

 The problem is, not everyone can be James Potter. Most of us know this, and are not ashamed to admit to Lupinesque hard work. And why should we be ashamed, anyway? There’s nothing wrong with being a geek, as Hermione has so admirably demonstrated. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with reading your books ahead of schedule, with staying up late nights to get that cramming done, to working yourself crazy in order to keep up with multiple classes.

 

 But it’s just not cool. Not in an age where Facebook rules our lives. We’re on display all the time, we’re finally starring in our own movies (complete with soundtracks in the form of status messages), we are fictional characters who check in and take pictures and like things. We can be as perfect and amazing and enviable as we want. We can be James Potter.

 

 And so begins the ‘I-don’t –study-see-I-just-went-for-a-movie’ or the ‘I-was-too-busy-making-out-with-my-new-partner-to-do-that-reading’ or ‘I-am-like-so-brilliant-I-scored-amazingly-in-my-exam-even-though-I-am-too-busy-snorkeling-in-Malaysia-to-read-my-course-books’. It’s absolute anathema to those in the grip of the JPC to be seen opening a book that is not far, far from the concerns of the academic moment. It is unthinkable that they admit to having read the assigned material the night before the tutorial- no, it must be read only half an hour before the scheduled meeting time, because otherwise, people would think they actually studied. Gasp. That is not to be borne. How would they continue to look cool? Where would the Jamesian spirit be in that?

 

  I could go into a long spiel about the decreasing value of hard work in a society that privileges snapshot success and quick thinking go-getters. I could spend a page boring you with faux sociological theses on the decline of Hufflepuffian ethics and the coolification of Gryffindor daring and Slytherin slickness. These things do tie into the proliferation of the JPC, but a thorough dissection will require a pseudo thesis[ii], not something I think anyone wants to read on a social networking site.

 

I don’t intend to condemn those who suffer the JPC, since I can sympathize with them. To be like James is to have it all, without trying very hard. For a long time, fantasy was held to be the domain of lonely little nerds, who needed tales of underdogs and unlikely foundlings becoming leaders of their people and succeeding where no one else had succeeded before. While the perception of the demographic has changed considerably, we’re still looking for the same things. We want someone who will convince us that no matter how small we are, how lost and confused, we can make a difference.

 

 So while we want to be James Potter, brilliant and popular, we will never admire him the way we admire Harry. For all my self proclaimed brilliance, I can never be James Potter. I’m just not good enough.

 

 But somewhere deep down is the hope that maybe, just maybe, I can be his much less impressive, but so much more heroic son.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[i] The reason I objected to calling the psychological condition the Sirius Black Complex is twofold. First, Sirius is not nearly so lucky as James- he has had a traumatic childhood, been disowned by his family, and rather than a clean death, he was thrown into a soul-sucking prison for twelve years. I think that balances out his gifts. Second, I don’t think any mere mortal compares to him, but you are free to disagree.

 

[ii] I will, hopefully, do just that. Some day.