We just spent the past week in Madrid, got back to Carboneras yesterday morning. Mostly what we did in Madrid was see movies. The Coen brothers' "True Grit" (here in Spain called "Valor de ley") was fun (very convincing acting by Bridges, Damon and the girl, Hailee Steinfeld). "Pa Negre" (Catalán for "black bread") won lots of prizes in Spain, has two excellent child actors, but the story disappointed me — the Spanish Civil War is just a pretext, the real violence centers on a dark personal secret. "Ispansi" (Russian for "Spaniards") is about the plight of a large group of Spanish children sent for their safety to the Soviet Union during the civil war and the adult Spaniards who are trying to take care of them, now all caught in the much bigger war when the Germans invade Russia. The encounters between Spaniards and Russians, their misunderstandings, and hardships of the convoy of children and adults trying to avoid German aircraft strafing and snipers and contending with cold and hunger — I was glad to be made aware of that episode.
The great thing about seeing foreign (non-Spanish-language) movies in Madrid is that we can see them in "versión original", that is, not dubbed into Spanish (almost impossible in smaller Spanish cities). Besides Pa negre (where we could listen to the actors in Catalán while we followed the meaning in the subtitles, we also watched a sublte, quiet, moving story in Turkish, Bal ("Miel" in Spanish, "Honey" in English), winner of the Golden Bear in Berlin and the third of a series of films about a character named Yusuf at various stages of his life; Bal shows him at about age 7, in a remote, wooded, mountainous area of northeastern Turkey where his father makes his precarious living by hanging bee hives and gathering honey from the rare black bees that live high in the tree tops. Sweet, sad, charming, with a wonderfully expressive child actor.
We also saw a curious, low-budget film in Catalán (with subtitles in Castellano) that interested me because I had read the collection of short stories it was based on: Mil cretins, by Quim Monzó. It was screened in the aptly named Pequeño Cine Estudio in Madrid (truly pequeño — at most 50 seats), where Susana and I were the only viewers on a Friday afternoon. It's a mix of pointed vignettes, clever and ironic skits and dumb jokes. But if you have read the book, you will surely enjoy seeing how some of your favorite stories are played out on the screen. My favorites include "Un corte" ("A Cut") and, best of all, "La alabanza" ("The Blurb"), about what happens when an older, established writer drops a mildly favorable remark about a younger, aggressively ambitious new writer. One story not filmed, but that I strongly recommend you read (the collection should appear sooner or later in English) is "Miro por la ventana" ("I am looking out my window") — where the narrator's refusal to tell us what is bothering him ends up making it extremely obvious what is bothering him. Look for other works by Quim Monzó.
Author Dirk van Nouhuys fears that Orwell's 1944 allegory may foreshadow events in North Africa.
It is by chance that I happened on the fine recording of Animal Farm by Bill Nighy on BBC audio at this time. The reading includes a rousing choral rendition of the animal’s anthem, Beasts of England. It is a piquant time to reconsider Animal Farm. So many revolutions seeking democracy and/or social justice are sweeping the Middle East. Animal Farm, an allegory written out of Orwell’s righteous bitterness over what had developed from the Russian revolution, reminds us of how many such hopeful revolutions have accomplished regime change but failed to deliver democracy or social justice. Can we not count the ones that failed on our fingers and toes, whereas for the ones that succeed hands and feet will do?
I can’t exactly remember when I first read Animal Farm, but at the time I was aware of the allegorical level, but did not focus on it. It seemed a moving animal fable made richer by its social implications. I remember reading it later with a key and admiring how exquisitely he plotted in the politics of Russia -: this pig is Trotsky, that horse is the working class, etc., though the correspondence is not exact, for instance no pig corresponds to Lenin. Later yet I read it to my children, which they liked, and again was most sensitive to the animal fable. The prose is always Orwell’s decent writing that is clear, a little flat, and does not call attention to itself. The animals are figures, not characters. In every reading, what stuck me most was the dedication and sincerity of most of the animals. So uncritical, so increasingly wrapped in lies by the pigs. Hearing it now I confess it seemed somewhat forced and mechanical, the faults for me of allegory. But it was moving because of my fear and hope for the people of the Middle East.
[Editor: The Nighy recording may be unavailable. But check out this amusing video of Animal Farm by Scott Pettersen.]