‘Picasso: The Mediterranean Years (1945-1962)’ at the Gagosian Gallery

Or ‘Picasso: The Cheerful Years’. I have no idea how cheerful or otherwise Picasso really was during the late 40s and 50s, but that’s the impression given by this exhibition.

The style which is most famously used in his earlier work, in paintings like Guernica and the Weeping Woman, to express something about the darker sides of the human experience, is here used in cheery, brightly coloured pictures of children playing.

A painting certainly doesn’t need gloomy subject matter to have artistic merit, but even so, this felt like Picasso-Lite; enjoyable enough, but more decorative, less intense. And why not, after all. He didn’t have anything to prove by that point.

Cities of Salt by Abdelrahman Munif

Cities of Salt is a novel about an unnamed Middle-Eastern country where desert tribesmen have their lives disrupted by the arrival of the oil industry. Think Saudi Arabia.

It’s 600 pages long and it’s only the first book in a quintet, so this is storytelling on a grand scale; I have to say I’m seriously impressed by it, and considering buying the next one.

There are two things which I think are particularly clever about the way it’s written. The first is that it has a large cast of characters while still feeling like a cohesive narrative. So you get a chapter or two about one person, and then the focus moves to someone else and the first character fades into the background, then after another couple of chapters you move onto a third person; and over the course of the book the cast of characters changes completely. in that way it’s very much the story of a place rather than a person. But it manages to do it in a way which feels very organic; it doesn’t read like a collection of separate stories.

The other thing I like is that even though the story is about the arrival of the (American) oil industry, it is told completely from the perspective of the Arab characters. So even though it is the Americans who are driving events much of the time, by digging wells and building roads and employing the locals, they are peripheral figures in the narrative. They just happen in the background, like the weather, and we only see them in glimpses. They are always behind the fence.

I guess that’s not unusual in post-colonial fiction, but it’s particularly effective here. Not that Saudi Arabia is actually a former colony, but it is similarly a country transformed by the arrival of outsiders. The initial encounter is on a small scale in a wadi in the desert, and the reaction is total bafflement; as the novel moves on, the scope opens out and the relationship between the two worlds becomes more complex and messier.

As soon as the camp was erected, the men paced off the area, put up wire fencing and short white pickets, scattered some strange substance around the tents and sprayed the earth with water that had a penetrating smell. Then they opened up their crates and unloaded large pieces of black iron, and before long a sound like rolling thunder surged out of this machine, frightening men, animals and birds. After several minutes of the rumbling, one of the Americans raised his hand and signalled to another, who extinguished the sound, but it was a long time before it stopped ringing in the ears.

When that was over, as fast as a magic trick, the people still watched everything that went on in silence and fear. When the sun began to sink in the west, it seemed that Wadi al-Uyoun was about to experience a night such as it had never known before. As soon as the animals began to bark and bray at sunset, the machine began to roar again, frightening everyone, only this time the sound was accompanied by a blinding light. Within moments scores of small but brilliant suns began to blaze, filling the whole area with a light that no one could believe or stand. The men and boys retreated and looked at the lights again to make sure they still saw them, and they looked at each other in terror. The animals who drew near retreated in fright; the camels fled, and the sheep stirred uneasily. Miteb stood not far from the place and spoke loudly enough to command attention over the fear and the machine’s noise. “Go back, people of Wadi al-Uyoun! If you don’t go back you’ll get burned and there’ll be nothing left of you.”

This marvellous incident, so crystal clear and yet impossible to believe at first, became with time a routine affair, for the men who for a certain period kept silent and watched everything in fear mixed with anticipation were soon used to it. Ibn Rashed went forward and asked Ghorab to explain how the lights and sound were produced, but in spite of a long and detailed explanation no one understood anything.

Cities of Salt by Abdelrahman Munif*, translated by Peter Theroux, is my book from Jordan for the Read The World challenge.

* or, according to Wikipedia, Abdul Rahman Munif; or using the Library of Congress system, ʻAbd al-Raḥmān Munīf. And just for the sake of completeness: عبد الرحمن منيف‎.

Apparently ‘Abdul’ is not actually a stand-alone name at allʻAbd al– means ‘servant of the’ and is part of a longer name: so Abdul Rahman means ‘Servant of the Benevolent’, Abdul Aziz is ‘Servant of the Almighty’,  and so on. Given how many names for God there are in Islam, there are loads of possible variants. So that’s something I’ve learnt today.

» At the camel market in Riyadh is © Charles Roffey and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

Soccer in Sun and Shadow by Eduardo Galeano

Apparently Eduardo Galeano’s book sales spiked in the US last year when Hugo Chávez gave Barack Obama a copy of Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent.

Which probably gives you a fairly accurate impression of the kind of writer Galeano is: a left wing journalist/historian with a particular anti-imperialist, anti-American emphasis. I decided to read some Galeano for the Read The World challenge — he’s Uruguayan — and considered reading one of his more political works; I could certainly stand to know more about the history and politics of Latin America. And they all get very high ratings on Goodreads and Amazon; hardly a foolproof test, but a reassuring suggestion that they’ll at least be quite readable. In the end, though, I took the soft option and bought his book on football, Soccer in Sun and Shadow. And I enjoyed it; enough to make me think of buying some more of his work.

It’s a string of hundreds of little vignettes, pen portraits, anecdotes, and mini-essays, each with it’s own heading, sometimes two or three pages long but often just a couple of paragraphs. Some are about broader subjects, like crowd violence or tactics or the commercialisation of the game; others about a particular player or game or even a single memorable goal. They’re arranged in chronological order, so they form a sort of idiosyncratic history of the game according to Eduardo Galeano.

It’s a distinctly Latin American perspective, which is probably a valuable corrective to the Anglo-centric bias of most of the football writing that I read. It does mean that some players get left out who would certainly make it into an English equivalent of this book: George Best, Paul Gascoigne, John Barnes, David Beckham. It’s a compliment to his writing that I found myself wanting to know what he would have said about them. And indeed about players who are too recent to make the cut; the book was originally published in 1998 and updated in 2003, so there’s no Ronaldinho, no Messi, no Christiano Ronaldo, no account of the current amazing Spain team.

Generally I think the book loses a bit of impetus towards the later years anyway; the earlier stuff is best. Partially I think that’s because there’s a fascination with the pre-history of football before everything was captured on film; it’s not a sport which lends itself to statistics, so reading about early football is like reading about ancient Greek painters: it doesn’t matter how detailed the descriptions are, there’s still a void at the centre of it all. It probably also has something to do with being Uruguayan; Uruguay won the Olympics in 1924 and 1928, and the World Cup in 1930 and 1950, but it has been downhill since then. So for Eduardo Galeano, born in 1940, it has been a lifetime of their glory days being behind them. Something the English are increasingly able to relate to.

He’s also not a fan of the modern game:

The history of soccer is a sad voyage from beauty to duty. When the sport became an industry, the beauty that blossoms from the joy of play got torn out by its very roots. In this fin-de-siècle world, professional soccer condemns all that is useless, and useless means not profitable. Nobody earns a thing from that crazy feeling that for a moment turns a man into a child playing with a balloon, like a bat with a ball of yarn; a ballet dancer who romps with a ball as light as a balloon or a ball of yarn, playing without even knowing he’s playing, with no purpose or clock or referee.

Play has become spectacle, with few protagonists and many spectators, soccer for watching. And that spectacle has become one of the most profitable businesses in the world, organised not for play but to impede it. The technocracy of professional sport has managed to impose a soccer of lightning speed and brute strength, a soccer that negates joy, kills fantasy and outlaws daring.

Luckily, on the field you can still see, even if only once in a long while, some insolent rascal who sets aside the script and commits the blunder of dribbling past the entire opposing side, the referee and the crowd in the stands, all for the carnal delight  of embracing the forbidden adventure of freedom.

I can’t say I necessarily agree with every one of his opinions, but it was thoroughly enjoyable book; beautifully written, and with just enough politics in it to cut through all the football nostalgia.

The Chattering Wagtails of Mikuyu Prison and Skipping Without Ropes by Jack Mapanje

I was searching around for a book from Malawi for the Read The World challenge, and found very cheap second-hand copies for sale of these two books of poetry by Jack Mapanje. And since poetry books are generally very short by nature, I thought I might as well buy both. Since I’ve read some fairly dreadful poetry as part of this challenge, it was especially encouraging that Skipping Without Ropes was published by a major poetry publisher, Bloodaxe Books. And I was drawn to The Chattering Wagtails of Mikuyu Prison because it had birds in the title. Yes, I really am that predictable. Also, if you want me to buy your wine, put a picture of a bird on the label.

And on the subject of birds, the ones in question were almost certainly the species pictured above, African Pied Wagtail. Attractive little beastie, isn’t it. Apparently, they form large communal roosts, one of which was on the wire mesh over the courtyard of Mikuyu prison when Mapanje was locked up there for three years, without charge, for writing poetry which annoyed the regime. Quite a lot of his time in prison was apparently spent mopping up wagtail shit. He was released in 1991 after pressure from writers and human rights activists and moved to the UK; he currently teaches creative writing at Newcastle University.

And he writes well. His poetry is dense, allusive, with telling details and attention to the sounds and rhythms of the language. I wouldn’t say he was suddenly my new favourite writer but he is, as I hoped, a proper poet; in a completely different class to some of the writers I’ve read for the Read The World challenge. You can read, and hear him read, some of his poetry at the Poetry Archive; ‘Scrubbing the Furious Walls of Mikuyu’ seems like an obvious place to start.

I actually read the books in reverse order, because his later book, Skipping Without Ropes, arrived first. His later poems seemed to me to be more relaxed, both emotionally and stylistically. I think on the whole I preferred the earlier stuff: angrier, more tightly wound and densely written. The later poems are probably smoother and more polished, but sometimes wander a bit too close to prose for my tastes. But there’s plenty of good stuff in both.

» The photo, African Pied Wagtail (Motacilla aguimp), is © Arno Meintjes and used under a CC by-nc licence.

Legends, Traditions and Tales of Nauru by Timothy Detudamo

Does very much what it says on the tin; a section of ‘legends’ (origin myths, broadly speaking) then ‘traditions’ (clothes, tools, fishing techniques and so on), and then 17 other folk tales. To quote the blurb:

In 1938, Head Chief Timothy Detudamo had the foresight to transcribe and then translate a series of lectures relating to the legends, customs and tales of Nauru, delivered by what he termed ‘native teachers’.

The book packs quite a lot of stuff into its 98 pages. And it’s all quite interesting. There is something fascinating about these Pacific island cultures where people were so isolated, and Nauru is isolated even by Pacific standards: one island two or three miles across which is hundreds of miles from anywhere.

I find the stories from oral cultures intriguing and slightly baffling: I just don’t understand the narrative logic of them; often they just seem to develop by a process of free-association. There probably is a narrative logic there, but it’s not what I’m used to.

The book also has a glossary which is so wilfully unhelpful that it’s actually rather brilliant; here’s a sample of it:

Demauduru: A type of food seen only at feasts and special occasions
Deneno: A type of food seen only at feasts and special occasions
Denodoro: A type of food seen only at feasts and special occasions
Denuwanini: A plant – a type of creeper
Derugu: A type of fighting weapon
Doboj: A type of food seen only at feasts and special occasions
Dobwidu: A type of fighting weapon
Dogoro: A type of fighting weapon

Legends, Traditions and Tales of Nauru is my book from Nauru for the Read The World challenge.

» The photo of the frigatebirds on perches is from the British Museum website; apparently in Nauru they use trained frigatebirds for fishing, a fact I somehow didn’t manage to learn from a book about the traditions of Nauru but found in Wikipedia.