Sunday, 25 November 2012

Amy Waldman: The Submission

Two years after 9/11, a jury gathers in Manhattan to select a memorial for the victims of the attack. The jurors deliberate on the designs without knowing who the submitting architects are. Only when the decision is taken do they learn that the winner is an American Muslim.

What now ensues is an engrossing tale on how to remember, and understand, a national tragedy. At the centre of this absorbing thriller are Mohammad Khan, the memorial's designer, and Claire Burwell, a 9/11 widow and the representative of the bereaved on the jury, who initially backs Khan's Garden and finally turns on both design and designer

'Booklist' called The Submission "The Bonfire of the Vanities for our time" and I do share that feeling. Michiko Kakutani of the 'New York Times' however opines that Waldman's story "has more verisimilitude, more political resonance and way more heart than Mr Wolfe's own 1987 best-seller The Bonfire of the Vanities ...". Since I had loved Wolfe's novel (and do like pretty much everything by him), I wondered whether Kakutani might on principle be not very fond of him, and so I googled her and Wolfe and found that she is said to generally dislike him, and Philip Roth, and Norman Mailer ... authors that I myself like to read ...

The Submission is much more than a thriller; it is an enlightening tale about New York politics, art, religion, the life of illegal immigrants, differing perceptions and attitudes, and warring interest groups – a tale that tells us more about the social fabric of this extraordinary centre of ambition (and the modern world) than any number of social studies. We come across the successful politician who has a keen sense of what the majority wants to hear, the hungry journalist who is unaware of the problems that sensational journalism is causing, ruthless political activists who solely pursue their own interests, and and and ...

I especially love this book for phrases like these:
"The Garden was too beautiful, Ariana and the other artists kept saying of Claire's choice. They saw for a living, yet when it came to the Garden they wouldn't see what she saw."
"The mockery of pretension, Claire decided, could also be pretentious."
"She knew children lived between the poles of invention and imitation."

And, I warmed much to the clashes of opinions that were expressed so convincingly:
"Some things don't deserve to be understood. Apartheid didn't deserve to be understood, even if the whites who benefitted from it didn't see it that way."
"Back when the Carmelite nuns wanted to put a convent at Auschwitz, the pope decided to respect the sensitivities of Jews and move it. He wasn't saying the nuns had no right to be there; he wasn't saying they were in any way responsible for what happened to the Jews. He was saying: rights do not make right, that feelings matter, too."

To me, the question that lies at the heart of this book is this: Should (can) we look at a piece of art without considering the person who created it? There isn't really an answer, as Amy Waldman impressively demonstrates:
"Down the stairs back in time, until she came upon herself and Cal standing in front of Picasso's 'Weeping Woman' at the Tate in London. Claire could still visualize the portrait today – the blue in her hair, the red in her hat, that ghastly, skull-like area around the mouth – more clearly, in fact, than she could see the husband who had stood next to her.
'Kind of ruins it that Picasso was so horrible, doesn't it?' Clare had said. 'He probably made Dora Maar cry, then painted her crying.'
'So great art requires a morally pure artist?' Cal asked. 'You look at the creation, not the creator.'
'So you ignore that he tormented poor Dora'
'No, you judge the paintings as works of art, and Picasso as a man. There's no inconsistency in loving one and reviling the other. And thankfully the converse is true as well: you love me even though I made some pretty lousy art. Maybe arrogance is necessary for greatness.'
(...) Perhaps they were inseparable, as Cal had argued  – the arrogance firing the creation  – but she wanted the Garden pure again, free of associations, free of Khan. The Garden as she first had seen it. But she couldn't take it from him, because it was his as much as, more than, hers. He had created it. She bent her head to her hands and cried."

Amy Waldmann
The Submission
Windmill Books, London 2012

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Arne Weychardt: Berlin 3D

The problem with book reviews is that once through with the book you are left with images and impressions, some favourable, some less so, that you now have to find words for. Sometimes, and that goes especially for photo books, you do not know what to say except that you like a tome or that you don't. In the case of Arne Weychardt's Berlin 3D: I like it. My favourite pic is the Living Doll mime artist at Checkpoint Charly.

What do I like about Berlin 3D? Well, this is the first time I look at photographs of Berlin in 3D, and that of course makes this tome special to me. Also, I do like looking at places I know through another person's eyes, and thus getting out of the prison of my own thoughts.

Berlin 3D is not really a book that lends itself to reviewing. In my view (yes, I know, a rationalisation is needed) it makes more sense to introduce it. And the best way to do that is to quote from "A declaration of love" by Dagmar Weychardt, the cousin of the photographer. She writes:

"In 1980 Arne Weychardt spent the Easter holiday at his grand-mother's old house with his brother and cousin. Up in the attic, they discovered a strange spectacle-like viewing device consisting of two close-up lenses with two 8x8cm slides set in front of them. The distance between the slides and lenses could be adjusted. Curious, 13-year old Arne put the antique device on his nose. After a few seconds, flooded by the shimmering light of the early spring sun, the hand-coloured slides were magically transformed. Ancient gates, columns, walls and sculptures were suddenly filled with texture and thrown into relief. The boy recognized the ancient Forum Romanum. Little by little, more monuments stood out from each other and the longer he looked at the image through the thick lenses, the more powerful the effect became."

Feel like sharing Arne's sensations? Put on the 3D glasses included with this book and enjoy looking at Berlin with changed eyes!

Arne Weychardt
Berlin 3D
Deutsch/English/Français/Español
Verlag Haffmans & Tolkemitt, Berlin 2012

Sunday, 11 November 2012

In Rio Grande do Sul

Copyright @ Ricardo Schütz

I have mentioned Rio Pardo before on this blog; this time now I am able to show you a photograph of the river restaurant there. I do not remember having seen it from this angle or in this light. What today comes to mind when looking at Ricardo's excellently framed pic is the last time I was there - it was rather cold, and rainy, and all grey in grey. Nevertheless, it felt good eating fish and chips in good company. What this photo also does to me: it fills me with a longing for Brazil, a place not burdened by history, where I felt everything was possible, or in the words of the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, "um país do futuro".

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Unter Schweizern

Getreu dem journalistischen Bonmot, „Nach einem Tag vor Ort, ein Artikel; nach einer Woche vor Ort, ein Hintergrundbericht; nach einem Monat vor Ort, ein Buch“, legt der Korrespondent der Süddeutschen Zeitung in der Schweiz, Wolfgang Koydl, der allerdings schon etwas mehr als einen Monat im Land weilt, ein Buch über die Schweiz und die Schweizer vor.

Um etwaigen Missverständnissen vorzubeugen: es ist begrüssenswert, wenn einer zur Feder greift (oder in die Tasten haut), wenn die Eindrücke noch frisch sind, ärgerlich ist jedoch, wenn er darob vergisst, seine Hausaufgaben zu machen. Konkret: Fast alle schweizerdeutschen Ausdrücke in diesem Buch sind nicht nur falsch („Bömbli“ anstatt „Bömbeli“), sondern gelegentlich – jedenfalls für Schweizer wie mich – schlicht unverständlich („Gescheiterli“). Das ist umso erstaunlicher, als er doch einen Schweizerdeutsch-Sprachkurs besucht hatte, wo er unter anderem darüber aufgeklärt wurde, dass es den Genitiv im Schweizerdeutschen nicht gibt, dafür jedoch den Genitiv II.

Der Einstieg (die Beschreibung eines dieser typischen übereifrigen Nachbarn) ist sehr gelungen und erinnerte mich an meinen ehemaligen, damals gerade frisch aus Deutschland zugezogenen, Strafrechtsprofessor in Basel, der auf meine Frage, was denn so sein erster Eindruck von Land und Leuten sei, trocken meinte: Polizei braucht es hier ja nicht wirklich, es gibt ja Nachbarn. Ebenfalls sehr schön gelungen (auf den ersten Seiten – und wenn die nicht stimmen, stimmt häufig das ganze Buch nicht) ist die Beschreibung von Koydls Chefredakteur: „... in all den Jahren ist er sich selbst treu geblieben, soll heissen: Irgendwelche Anzeichen von Lernprozessen, Selbsterkenntnis, Altersmilde gar sind nicht zu erkennen.“

"Wer hat's erfunden?" brachte mich immer mal wieder zum Staunen. So war mir nicht bekannt, dass jeder Hund (samt Besitzer), der neu in eine Gemeinde kommt, einen Kurs absolvieren muss. Und zum Lachen, die Beschreibung von Wollerau etwa, wo viele ganz Reiche eine Adresse haben, jedoch nicht wohnen. „Der Ort ist bar jeder Attraktivität. Dort kann man eigentlich nur leben, wenn man dort nicht wohnen muss.“ Oder der Hinweis auf die meterhohe Aufschrift in altdeutscher Fraktur auf einer Hauswand in Luzern: „Was haben Sie eigentlich gegen Beamte? Die tun doch gar nichts.“ Oder: „Irritierend für den Fremden mutet dabei an, dass Bürger von ausserhalb der Basel Stadtmauern – der Tennisstar Roger Federer beispielsweise – nicht als 'Baselländer', sondern als 'Baselbieter' bezeichnet werden – nach dem Gebiet. Kein Wunder, dass ich anfangs an ein Auktionshaus dachte.“

Schweizer tragen oft sehr absonderliche Namen, sowohl vorne als hinten“, behauptet Koydl und ich wunderte mich schon, wie er das wohl belegen würde, da ich selber Namen wie Imoberdorf, Dahinden oder Regenass völlig normal finde (zugegeben, etwas sonderbar finde ich es schon, dass ich solche Namen bisher so normal finden konnte) und stiess dann auf den wirklich ultimativen Brüller, auf den ich selber gar nie gekommen wäre: „Vollends verwirrte mich ein Abgeordneter im Berner Bundesparlament mit dem Namen This Jenny. Vermutlich wollten ihn seine Eltern von seinem Bruder unterscheiden, den sie schätzungsweise That Johnny genannt hatten.“

„Wer hat's erfunden?“ ist informativ, witzig und aufklärend, auch Schweizer werden bei der Lektüre einiges lernen können, an Geschichtlichem, Sprachlichem, Geografischem und Kulturellem. Ich war übrigens ganz erstaunt, dass es zu Ehren von Freddie Mercury in Montreux einen Sockel gibt. Und verwundert darüber, dass ich bis jetzt ohne die beim Wandern erforderlichen Grussregeln habe auskommen können (wenn ein Paar mehr als drei Meter auseinander geht, grüsst man sie separat; ab 3000 Meter wird geduzt): „Langjährige Kenner der Schweiz haben die Theorie aufgestellt, dass dieses sogenannte 'Grüezi-Wandern' von den Schweizern nur deshalb so aufmerksam gepflegt wird, weil ihnen dies eine der wenigen Gelegenheiten im Leben bietet, sich mit anderen ebenso wortkargen Landsleuten verbal auszutauschen.“

Wolfgang Koydl
Wer hat's erfunden?
Unter Schweizerm
Ullstein Taschenbuch, Berlin 2012
www.ullstein.de