Dilettante's Diary

Oct 22/09

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The date above is the date on which the page was started. As new reviews are added, they will appear near the top of the page. The less recent reviews will move further down.

Reviewed here: A Serious Man (Movie); In The Loop (Movie); Treasures 2009 (Art Show); Confessions of an Innocent Man (Autobiography); The Night Gardener (Mystery)

A Serious Man (Movie) written and directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen; starring Michael Stuhlberg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Sari Lennick, Aaron Wolff, Jessica McManus, Alan Mandell; with George Wyner, Michael Tezla, Fyvush Finkel, Allen Lewis Rickman, Yelena Schmulenson, Ronald Schultz

It’s the 1960s in the US, and Larry Gopnik, a physics professor, lives in a bland neighbourhood of cookie-cutter homes. Everybody wears dorky horn-rimmed glasses and drab clothes of the pre-psychedelic era. It all looks like deadly dull domesticity, except that Larry is having a horrible, very bad week. His wife wants a divorce, his tenure application looks iffy, his kids bicker constantly, his goy neighbours cause trouble, his unemployed bachelor brother presents new problems every day and the Record of the Month Club keeps hounding Larry about payment for deliveries he never ordered. While everything is falling apart around him, he’s supposed to be gearing up for his son’s Bar Mitzvah at the end of the week.

Any resemblance to a certain biblical figure (whose name rhymes with "strobe"), is probably intentional. In fact, we’re in a realm of story telling that’s something like parable, fable or allegory. I don’t know the exact word for the genre but overtones of certain stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer come to mind. Traces of a type of desperate comedy in the Mordecai Richler vein also come to the surface.

My relative unfamiliarity with the culture also means that I can't nail the word for a guy like Larry. But there must be one. Something like a nebbish or a schlemiel. Except that Larry doesn’t project any of the ridiculous or loser-ish qualities those terms suggest. No matter how far down he goes, no matter how deep the shit is piled on top of him, there’s still something dignified and honourable about him.

In his quiet way, Larry gets off some great lines. When a counsellor asks whether his marriage has been troubled, Lawrence says that his wife thinks so, "and she’s usually right about these things." In the midst of all the turmoil, Lawrence is asked the rhetorical question: you wouldn’t want things to go back to the way they were, would you? He says no, of course not, but then in an afterthought, "Yes, I would actually."

As Larry, Michael Stuhlberg holds our attention fully with his wondering look in the midst of all his suffering. None of the characters surrounding Larry has the same degree of subtlety and nuance but they’re all formidable. This is one of those movies where incisive comedy points up the awful aspects of certain human beings. Like the people played by Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara in Christopher Guest’s movies. You see very real human types, exaggerated just enough to make you squirm.

Among the many such here, we have Larry’s prickly wife, with her helmet hairdo (Sari Lennick). Everything she says turns into an attack on him. Suppose he came in the door and commented that it was a nice day outside. This woman would respond: "Larry, why do you always avoid the main issue?" Another repulsive type, a wet-behind-the-ears young rabbi, informs the distraught Larry that he’s not looking for God in the right places – such as the parking lot of the synagogue. When Danny, Larry’s pubescent son (Aaron Wolff), gets together with his pals, they flaunt foul language with a phoniness that’s all too real. The guy (Fred Melamed) who wants to steal Larry’s wife comes across with a smarmy friendliness of a kind that you know you’ve encountered yourself, although (I hope) in less dire circumstances.

With characters like these, you're bound to get some scenes that are far from run-of-the-mill. When, for instance, an elderly teacher catches young Danny listening to a cassette of rock music during Hebrew class, he confiscates the cassette player and takes it, along with Danny, into his office. For a minute or so we get nothing but the teacher’s scowling countenance – one with so many lines, pouches and furrows, that it looks like it’s been under a rock for years – as he examines the offending machine. Those few moments with nothing but that face convey more contempt, scorn and mystification than pages of dialogue in another movie. Another knock-out scene would be the one where Larry, who has been banished to a motel, comforts his abject brother (Richard Kind) in the middle of the night while they’re sitting in their underwear on the edge of the motel’s empty pool. Then there’s the time when the Record Company phones Larry – yet again – about the unpaid bills. He almost loses his composure at this point because he’s just had a serious car accident, so the flunkey from the record company is forced to try to console him. Another special moment would be the time when Larry’s trying to convince his department head at the college that he, Larry, isn’t a bad person – except for that one time, maybe, when he watched that Swedish movie, which wasn’t even very erotic, "except....it was....in a way."

Probably the key thematic scene in the movie – which would be why it’s used in the advertising – is the one where Larry climbs to the roof of his modest bungalow to try to adjust the tv aerial, this in response to his son’s constant complaints that his programs aren’t coming in clearly. We see Larry ineffectually turning the aerial this way and that but, clearly, he can’t bring in the message. This, then, would be a Moses who has climbed the mountain but doesn’t have the expected encounter with the divine. What does this guy see instead of a burning bush? A neighbour woman in her backyard, burning herself to a crisp with a bit of naked sunbathing. Seems to me there could be at least two visual puns there, if your mind runs that way.

The strangest thing about this movie, however, would be the prologue that comes before the credits: an antiquated folk tale about a guy who brings home a helpful fellow he met while struggling through a snowstorm. The visitor (Fyvush Finkel) is supposed to be someone the wife once knew. But the wife figures the visitor must be a dybbuk, because her acquaintance died years ago. She stabs the bemused and unsuspecting visitor with an ice pick. The fact that he laughs unconcernedly seems proof of his inhuman status. But then, he admits that he isn’t feeling so well after all, so he gets up and staggers to the door....

At this point, all I knew about A Serious Man was that it was supposed to be very funny. So I kept wondering where the humour was in this little tale. Could it be that the wife (Yelena Schmulenson) was so unbearably grim, with her dirty face and lousy teeth, while the husband (Allen Lewis Rickman) was so full of sweetness and bonhomie? Were we supposed to take the contrast as funny? Or did the scene have nothing to do with humour? Was there going to be some sort of payoff, wherein we would discover that somebody later in the movie was going to be a descendant of one of these characters?

As far as I could tell, there was no such follow-through. All I can conclude is that the prelude was meant to show us we were completely immersed in the world of weird folk tales. Yet, the faintly campy note served as warning that the ethos of that world was going to be turned on its head. Because, you see, there wasn’t going to be any moral or any meaning to Larry Gopnik’s story. In fact, the movie makes much of his fruitless running from one rabbi to another in search of answers to his problems. The sole contribution of these "comforters" is to tell him that there really isn’t any answer. That could be why we get a sort of exclamation mark at the conclusion of a class where Lawrence is explicating, for the benefit of his dozy students, the Principle of Uncertainty. Pointless is the point of it all.

Fair enough. Very clever. But this could be a movie that you admire more than you enjoy. It certainly doesn’t make you feel good about humanity -- apart from a few moments where the benighted Lawrence struggles not to give in to self pity. At those points, I suddenly felt tremendous compassion for the man. Surely a few sparks that can ignite such fellow-feeling make a movie worthwhile? If only the rest of it didn’t make me so damned uncomfortable. Throughout, the question kept bothering me: can a movie be both funny and depressing? The truth is, the latter effect was more prevalent for me.

Which is not to deny the comedy. For me, the best laugh came in one of the last lines of the credits. I feel it’s ok to give away this joke because, at the showing I attended, I was the only one left in the theatre to catch it. There it was in small, discreet lettering: No Jews were harmed in the making of this motion picture.

Rating: B- (where B = "Better than most")

 

In The Loop (Movie) written by Jesse Armstrong and Simon Blackwell; directed by Armando Iannucci; starring Tom Hollander, Peter Capaldi, Gina McKee, Mimi Kennedy, James Gandolfini, Chris Addison, David Rasche, Anna Chlumsky, Enzo Cilenti, Olivia Poulet, Zach Woods, Paul Higgins

Great title, that, because the movie’s all about who’s in the loop and who isn’t. We’re behind-the-scenes with a bunch of politicians and their assorted handlers and press officers. In an earlier era, this is what would have been called a "madcap comedy", except for the bitter undertone. It’s all about who-knows-what and how status and prestige are thereby established. The action swings back and forth between London and Washington, DC, where the various politicos skirmish and scheme. It’s as if you took the relatively serious conniving of Charlie Wilson’s War (see Dilettante’s Diary review, Jan 17/08), added the British element and gave the whole thing a crazy spin.

So....we get computers and cell phones galore. Rages and temper tantrums. Infidelity. Firings and resignations. Press leaks. Secret committees with fake names. All this builds towards an important vote by the UN Security Council, more or less as in the overture to the US invasion of Iraq. To add to the farcical element, there’s much kafuffle about a crumbling garden wall back in the constituency of one British minister.

That minister (Tom Hollander) launched a lot of the commotion with his comment to the press that war was "unforseeable". That word gets tossed back and forth across the Atlantic like a live grenade. Seems the minister has a bit of a problem generally with words. He never manages to serve up the appropriate sound bite. When cornered again by the press about the prospects of war, he ends up, after a certain amount of groping, saying that a country might be forced to climb the mountain of conflict. For this he is accused of sounding like a Nazi Julie Andrews. Mr. Hollander, a somewhat diminutive man with a pleasant face, handles the role of the tongue-tied minister with great aplomb, providing a sort of calm spot that we can retreat to gratefully.

What we’re retreating from largely is the fulmination emanating from one of the bosses in the Prime Minister’s office. As the vicious representative of the PM, Peter Capaldi, a skeletal guy with a hook nose and a Scottish accent, spews obscene vituperation with such pathological relentlessness that I was soon longing for something to blot him out every time he came on screen.

Considerably more palatable performances come from Mimi Kennedy, in the role of an upper-level functionary in the US State Department and James Gandolfini, as a US general with a surprisingly complex attitude to many things including war and sex. Ms Kennedy's performance as a shrewd, savvy middle-aged public servant brought to mind Hilary Clinton, but without the hard edges. James Gandolfini had one of the best lines in the movie. War, he said, is like France: once you’ve been there, you don’t ever want to go back unless you absolutely have to. But one of the few slip-ups in terms of scenario involved these two. I found their meeting in a little girl’s bedroom (during a house party) and their calculating troop movements on a cute toy computer too contrived by far.

In a documentary style, it all moves very fast, with subtitles introducing new characters and locales. But the big drawback of this type of movie-making – for me – is the hand-held camera. I know that helps to create an air of excitement and tension. One hour in, though, my innards were reeling so badly that I had to take in most of the rest of the movie with eyes shut. That did, however, make for some interesting revelations. As in the department of voice types. Turns out that Mr. Capaldi, in the role of the obnoxious creep from the PM’s office, has a rather mellow voice, no hard edges at all. Maybe that’s why he has to throw dirty words like knives.

Rating C- (Where C = "Certainly worth seeing")

 

Treasures 2009 (Art Exhibition) Anthony J. Batten, Michael Cleary, Linda Finn, John Hansen, Jane Hunter, Brent Laycock, Mary Anne Ludlam, June Montgomery, Margaret L. Squire, Rudolf Stussi. The Canadian Society of Painters in Watercolour; John B. Aird Gallery, 900 Bay Street, Toronto. Monday to Friday 10am - 6 pm; until November 20.

A recent stint of volunteering gave me a day to commune with some of the finest watercolour painting this country – indeed the world itself – has to offer. Treasures 2009 at the Aird Gallery celebrates the work of ten lifetime members of the Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colour. All ten are stellar artists whose involvement with the CSPWC has significantly helped promote the love of watercolours at home and abroad.

Blurbs about the show describe these ten artists variously as "venerable" and "distinguished". Not much doubt about which category I’d prefer to be included in, but either would do. The artists’ bios list enough awards and medals combined to fill a museum of their own. Several of the artists have had works selected for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s collection at Windsor Castle.

To my way of seeing things, this show surpasses the previous one that featured CSPWC lifetime members. In that show, you couldn’t escape the impression that some of the artists didn’t submit their best work. No such suspicion this year. While all works exhibit a high degree of excellence, one of the most striking things about the show is the range of styles and themes – everything from landscapes that wouldn’t look out of place in a Victorian show to freaky creations that look like they’re fresh from Queen Street West. (A few of the works are in other media than watercolour.)

An unusual aspect of this show is that the artists’ statements, unlike the fatuous platitudes often penned in that department, provide genuinely helpful information about techniques, intentions and inspirations, along with background anecdotes. Some artists even include very enlightening sketches and photos used in the preparation of the paintings.

In the more traditional vein, Michael Cleary’s smallish paintings in a detailed style, with cool greens, greys and muted earth tones, take the viewer into areas of the Canadian wilderness with a forbidding atmosphere familiar to anybody who has ventured into some of the more forsaken parts of this country. John Hansen’s take on landscape, based on masterly drawing skill, introduces a somewhat more modern flair, although one painting of sailboats in cradles, with various dockyard workers puttering around, shows, to my mind, traces of John Singer Sergeant’s classic touch with watercolour.

Anybody well versed in the watercolour scene in Canada knows that Tony Batten excels in his architectural watercolours of fiendishly difficult subjects – like the Doges palace in Venice. So it’s not surprising that we find such works here. Still, the strikingly original and dramatic composition of one painting stuns the viewer. You’re never going to find a better depiction of Venice than Mr Batten’s painting of the Scuola Grande di St. Rocco.

Among other artists whose work I’ve admired for a long time are Mary Anne Ludlam and Brent Laycock. Ms Ludlam whittles landscapes down to almost abstract shapes, then executes them with a clear, transparent touch. One that has a particularly haunting effect shows a little wooden boat beached on a barren shore with an iceberg hulking on the horizon. (The preliminary work regarding this painting is fascinating.) Brent Laycock’s fresh, loose way with prairie landscapes works marvellously in a winter scene where the long shadows on the snow and the darkening sky make you want to hurry home for supper. This time around, though, Mr. Laycock surprised me with two wonderfully colourful and wild abstracts. What appeals to me especially is the fact that they glory in the expressive potential of watercolour, a medium not often used for abstract painting.

At first, Margaret Squire’s watercolours – created with small daubs of paint, almost in a pointillist style – seem too busy and dazzling to take in. After sitting for an afternoon in front of her Tunisian desert scene, however, I began to feel the shimmering heat and to long for refuge in the little stone hut under the palm trees that were now beginning to wave at me.

The works of Linda Finn and June Montgomery were new to me. All of Ms Finns’ paintings feature humans in some relationship to water. A fat man in a bathtub, covering his face with his hands, proves unexpectedly thought-provoking. As compared to other famous bathtub paintings, you couldn’t say this chap possesses the dignity of, say, Jean-Paul Marat (as painted by Jacques-Louis David), but a certain softness of focus expresses Ms Finn’s compassion for her troubled subject. June Montgomery’s works, somewhat reminiscent of Emily Carr’s, include many First Nations motifs, such as masks and totems. A painting of a statue conveys the quality of a certain kind of stone – perhaps jade – with tactile impact.

You can always count on internationally-renowned artist Rudi Stussi to mix things up. Here, we get one of his "skewed cityscapes" in which melting and toppling buildings somehow capture the action and light in downtown Toronto at night. In his somewhat more bizarre paintings, Picasso-like faces – i.e. split as in double-exposure photos – emerge from chaotic backgrounds with an overall ambiance not greatly out of synch with the Hallowe’en season.

For me, the most satisfying paintings in the show come from Jane Hunter. And here full disclosure is required. While I have previously met some of the artists in this show, the case of Ms Hunter is special. Many years ago, in Sarnia, Ontario, I was Ms Hunter’s first art student. She had just returned from the Ontario College of Art and every Tuesday evening I went to her house where she lit a fire in the grate and proceeded to take me through the basics of painting and drawing. At the end of the first session, we stood at the door, trying to reach a decision about the awkward business of a fee. The amount finally agreed upon was two dollars per lesson.

It was from Ms Hunter that I acquired a long-lasting love for the watercolour medium and its unique possibilities. Not to mention an introduction to the magic of art itself. Flipping through her sketch book one time, she stopped on a quick watercolour of a fascinating tangle of bushes, vines and trees. That woodsy nook struck me as so enchanting that I thought it must be some exotic place far away. "Oh no," she said with a laugh, "it’s just some spot in Canatara Park." (Sarnia’s large public playground.)

Having not seen Ms Hunter again in the many decades since those lessons, I was thrilled to encounter her gorgeous work here. A meticulous painting of leaves, rocks and weeds – actually a study of shapes and tones – looks like a patch of open water that Ms Hunter probably discovered one winter in the park near her home. In a very different mood, a blurry, hazy painting in the wet-in-wet technique bears the dream-related title "Pathway to Somewhere". A watercolour entitled "Rembrance" captures with exquisite delicacy the fading beauty of a motley collection of flowers in a glass vase, a wilting poppy central among them.

But the highlight of the show for me, indeed for many people – I saw several visitors head straight for it on entering the gallery – is a work with the enticing title "Up a Jungle River #1". Entirely in shades of green, showing dense foliage on a river bank and reflections in the water below, the painting exudes so much light and oxygen that it makes your lungs expand gratefully. The international environmental movement should adopt the painting as a representation of everything about this world that we are trying to preserve.

 

Confessions of an Innocent Man: Torture and Survival in a Saudi Prison (Autobiography) by William Sampson, 2005

True stories about how people endure terrible ordeals, especially physical ones, appeal to the rugged survivor buried somewhere deep in my self image. How would I fare when subjected to the same kind of punishment? That's the hook. So a book about any such experience catches my attention, even when the book isn't exactly new. With this one, an added interest was the fact that I vaguely remembered some of the media reports about the author’s trouble at the time it happened.

In 2000, William Sampson, a forty-one-year old with both British and Canadian citizenship, was working as a biochemist in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. One day he was summarily bundled off to prison and charged with being involved in the planting of a bomb that had killed a British engineer, Christopher Rodway. Mr. Sampson was tortured relentlessly until he wrote a "confession" as dictated to him by his captors. After a ludicrously farcical trial, he was sentenced to die by a means of execution that involved being fixed to two stakes, partially beheaded and left to die slowly.

Mr. Sampson makes it clear that he and the Westerners rounded up with him were convicted because of Saudi Arabia’s need to maintain the charade that the Kingdom is utterly law-abiding, that there is no unrest or rebellion whatever within the ranks, and that any disturbance must therefore be attributable to corrupt Westerners. Not that Mr. Sampson and his pals were total goody-goods. They visited illegal bars and indulged in proscribed alcohol. So they knew they were under suspicion from the authorities. But for trying to unsettle the Kingdom by planting bombs? Hardly.

Nothing would do, however, but they must be convicted. Hence the torture. For the first several days of his "investigation", Mr. Sampson was forced to stand, chained in his cell, deprived of sleep. The more pro-active torture, which went on almost every day for over a year, involved his being trussed and beaten with a cane. He was regularly examined by a doctor – a cursory examination to be sure – to ascertain that he wasn’t in immediate danger of dying.

He labels his interrogators, i.e. torturers, by the nicknames Acne and Midget. The pair knew their craft well enough to injure him mainly in the soft tissues so that there would be little sign of abuse in the long term. The soles of his feet thus came in for prolonged caning. In fact, it was the condition of his feet than enabled Denmark’s Parker Institute, an organization that specializes in such investigations, to state conclusively, on his release, that he had been tortured.

Another favourite target was his scrotum. But we're not talking about sexual stuff here -- just more beating. When it did come time for sex, Mr. Sampson's rape by the two thugs took place without any foreplay. What strikes a particularly ironic note is that the torture sessions, one of which included the rape, had to be arranged around frequent calls to prayer; Mr. Sampson would often be delivered to the torture chamber, only to be left waiting while Acne and Midget attended to their religious duties. Sometimes, one of the goons had to break off the torture to take a call on his cell phone from his wife, whereupon he exhibited the unmistakable demeanour of what Mr. Sampson calls a "henpecked husband".

When their attacks brought on Mr. Sampson’s heart attack, Acne and Midget belittled his distress until it became obvious that he might die. Rushed to hospital, Mr. Sampson was given medication that had the effect of sexual arousal. Later, he was subjected to the services of a prison psychiatrist who was trying to convince him that all his suffering was the result of his own self-destructive urges and that the only solution was to convert to Islam. To disconcert this man – but wasn’t he was a psychiatrist after all? – Mr Sampson talked about the erotic effect of the heart medicine. Subsequently, Acne berated Mr. Sampson for mentioning disgusting sexual matters to a fine man like the psychiatrist. One can hardly grasp the extent of Mr. Sampson’s astonishment at hearing this scolding from one of the men who had raped him.

As other captives have reported, the way to keep sane in such situations is to exercise control over your circumstances in whatever small ways you can. At first, Mr. Sampson hid grains of rice in his mattress to mark the passage of days. Later, when he was provided with books, he kept more elaborate records by making tears and folds in the pages of a book. At times, you have to wonder how he remembers so much detail – about specific beatings, for instance – but that mystery clears up when he explains that, as a form of mental exercise, he spent much of his time going over and over the details of every day that had passed.

And it was mental exercise that saved him. A break-through came when he realized that, no matter what was done to him physically, he still retained ownership of his interior self. What brought that home to him was remembering Richard Lovelace’s poem beginning with the famous lines: "Stone walls do not a prison make/Nor iron bars a cage...." Repeating those lines over and over did much to strengthen Mr Sampson's resolve. "They did in fact own my body," he says, "and I would submit to whatever violation or indignity that they chose to apply.....However, I also understood, in a way more profound than earlier, that I had a place of retreat, for they could not see inside my head."

Nevertheless, he knew the torture would eventually force him to confess. Subjected to a such brutality, your only way of trying to retain some sense of integrity is to hold out as long as you can. And yet, the torture didn’t end once a confession was signed. There was always more torture to produce revised confessions that would better satisfy the authorities. Then there were always more people, more Westerners, both friends and mere acquaintances, to be implicated, through the application of more torture.

The confessions that Mr. Sampson was directed to write – and to re-write again and again according to the dictation of his torturers – were so ridiculously complicated that they ended up looking, as he says at one point, like scripts for an Ed Wood movie. Anybody with the slightest concern for truth would have spotted the fictive nature of these documents immediately. But they served the purpose intended by the Saudi authorities.

What’s harder to understand is how these "confessions" convinced the Canadian diplomats assigned to Mr. Sampson’s case. He expresses nothing but contempt for the way it was handled by the staff of the Canadian consulate, who appeared to accept implicitly the "veracity" of his supposed confessions. The inference is that, for the sake of political expediency, the Canadians didn’t dare challenge the Saudis. The terms Mr. Sampson uses with regard to the Canadian consulate’s behaviour range from, at the mildest, "navet" and "dishonesty" to, at the stronger end of the spectrum, "hypocrisy" and "perfidy".

While consular officials made regular visits to him in prison, it was impossible for him to say anything true about his situation, given that his torturers were sitting in on the meetings. If he departed even slightly from the script they had assigned, it meant more torture afterwards. The problem, Mr. Sampson says, was that the Canadian officials didn’t have the guts to insist that their meetings with him be private – as they should have been, according to agreed-upon diplomatic norms. It came to the point that he refused to co-operate with the Canadian consulate in any way. By the time of his release from prison, he would accept the advice and aid only of the British, even though they hadn’t impressed him as being much more helpful than the Canadians during his incarceration.

Not that he was an easy person to deal with, either for the Saudis or the diplomats. After some time, his attempt to maintain control in small, subversive ways escalated to a full-fledged campaign of provocation. He refused to wear clothing, sprayed his urine all over the place and smeared himself with his feces. These tactics, he felt, would be repugnant to the morals and modesty of the Muslim guards.

At the end of the book, he acknowledges that this feisty, confrontational way of dealing with problems was natural to him. But there were other reasons for his acting up. By this time, he was so debilitated by the torture that he was longing for death and was doing everything he could to hasten it. In fact, it amused him to think how his death would cause trouble for the civil servants left to deal with the repercussions. Even in such desperate straights, however, he shows a touch of altruism: he hoped his death would satisfy the Saudis, with the result that the Westerners arrested with him would be released. He was offering himself as a scapegoat because he was the one who had the fewest family members to leave behind.

To his utter disbelief, however, he received the news, after almost three years, that he was being released. In fact, he was so dumbfounded that he refused to believe the message, thinking it was just another trap. One of his Western colleagues who had been jailed had to come to Mr. Sampson’s cell to convince him that liberation was truly at hand.

Before leaving, he apologized for his behaviour to some of the Muslim guards who, he believed, had tried to treat him decently. He notes that it was the black Saudis, of African heritage, who were usually more humane towards him. (Their presence was due to the fact that the slave trade was abolished in Saudi Arabia only in the early 1960s.) One man, in particular, a guard whom Mr. Sampson had badly bitten in a fracas, accepted the apology and offered his own.

And Mr. Sampson acknowledges, ultimately, that he had not survived his ordeal entirely on his own. "The beauty that I had experienced in life and the love I had been shown were with me through my trials." Still, the book doesn’t end on a note of harmony and reconciliation all around. Regarding his torturers, Mr. Sampson’s declares unambiguously that he is still at war with them and the powers they represented.

Given that the book offers such a detailed account of Mr. Sampson’s ordeal, it comes as a serious disappointment that he fails to tell us anything about why his release came about. Was he pardoned? Was his sentence commuted? Were there diplomatic skirmishes at high levels? An Internet search on the case turns up reports that, indeed, Prince Charles was involved in negotiations over a swap for Saudi prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.

Why doesn’t Mr. Sampson tell us so? Maybe because of legal issues. The book jacket mentions that Britain’s Court of Appeal, having found no evidence to connect him with the fatal bombing, cleared him in 2004 to sue the Saudis for what they did to him. But that decision, I find, was reversed by the Law Lords in 2006. Perhaps on-going complications with Mr. Sampson’s legal pursuits have prevented him from speaking about the reasons for his release.

Even without that crucial information, Mr. Sampson’s story is an important one and his book would make a gripping read – except for a major drawback. When the Saudis decided to arrest Westerners in connection with the bombing, they did not, in the case of this captive, choose a writer. Mr. Sampson’s style is stodgy and turgid. Not to say that his account isn’t clear, for the most part, and well organized; he is an educated man, after all. But his writing, rather than having the effect of an engaging voice speaking directly to you, reads like the work of a university student struggling with an essay.

Some of the flaws in the writing involve basic narrative technique. When he’s recalling complicated events, such as the doings of the accused Westerners around the time of their arrest, it can be hard to keep track of the characters and the layout of the city. Some of the lively, dramatic scenes desperately need the hand of an "action" writer. Descriptive writing about locales outside the prison sometimes sounds like travel brochure text. Occasional "spoilers" ruin passages that would have been more effective if written more cannily. Near the end of the book, a loving girlfriend appears as someone who was, apparently, in the background all the time, but we had heard nothing about her, as far as I could recall.

The main problem, though, is that there’s no ease or facility to the style; many sentences are awkwardly formal. When the author’s talking about standing on the cold floor of his cell after a foot-beating, he says: "My feet, however, did not register the coldness of that unheated surface due to the sensation of heat that emanated from them." In his description of the deleterious effects of such a routine on one’s mental state, he says: "Coherent thought has all but disappeared, except for brief periods during which you experience the paranoid feelings of encroaching insanity, into which I was certainly convinced that I was descending." Regarding his compulsion to unravel threads of his clothing, we get this sentence: "When I first engaged in this activity in the interrogation offices, it provoked the entrance of guard officers into the room where I was held for the purpose of emptying pockets and removing my distraction." The excitement of a romantic reunion after his release fizzles under the leaden impact of a sentence like: "The emotions and passions of the preceding days had given us a heightened sense of the sublimity of these ordinary moments."

This unfortunate aspect of the book may be the result of the stubborn nature Mr. Sampson admits to. It appears he was determined to write the book his own way and to hell with any collaborators. In any case, none are credited. That’s a pity, because his book would have reached many more people, I suspect, if it had been written in a more accessible tone. Mr. Sampson needed to know that narrative voice is everything. You can have the best story in the world but, if you don’t tell it in an effective way, it’s not going to reach many people. On the other hand, you can have a story that’s pretty minor in terms of the things that really matter, but it can have a tremendous impact if you tell it well.

I suspect that Mr. Sampson has within him the narrative voice to make more people listen. He claims, for example, that he has a lively sense of humour. He says that trait sometimes made him laugh in a gruesome way at what was happening to him. One of the few times that aspect of his personality comes through is the time when he says, about being raped: "I was well and truly fucked."

Any guy who’s capable of such mordant wit – at the nadir of his own misery – must have lots more flair than this book reveals. If only he had called on a writer to help him show it.

 

The Night Gardener (Mystery) by George Pelecanos, 2006

Many of my book reviews lately, especially in the case of mysteries, turn into exercises in demonstrating how my views differ dramatically from those of the critics who have recommended the books.

This one came with glowing praise from The Globe and Mail’s Margaret Cannon: "A superb novel by a major author at the peak of his form". I, however, found the book to be yet another supposed mystery that reads like the author wants it to form the basis for a tv series. On finishing the book, I checked the cover blurb and found that the author has, in fact, written for the much-heralded tv series The Wire. The book has very much the feel of that gritty, street-smart scene (from what I hear about the show, not having seen it). The fact that the book so vividly conveys life "on the edge" is probably the main reason it was highly recommended.

As a mystery, though, it doesn’t work for me. The central story involves the death of a black kid shot to death in a public garden in Washington, DC. Detective Gus Ramone gets the case. It is thought that the kid’s death may be related to some serial killings several years ago. A flashback to 1985 shows us how some cops involved in those cases now want, as ex-cops, to meddle in the current case. This causes some interference for Ramone. His ultimate solution to this case doesn’t involve any very clever detecting, mainly just routine follow-up on the various leads. Still, that story in itself would provide enough interest and intrigue, although the author disappoints somewhat in ultimately showing us the answer to the serial killings, rather than having the detectives nail it.

But the main problem is that too many other stories have little or no connection to the main one. A significant portion of the book focuses on some verminous types involved in the drug trade, their affairs having only a very tangential link to the black kid’s death. At the outset of the book, the author spends about thirty pages on the case of a mother knifed to death. The case closes with the expected confession from her killer. That business seems intended just to introduce the various cops and their modus operandi. Admittedly, some of them do demonstrate remarkable skill in breaking down a witness.

Does the book succeed then, if not as a mystery, as a depiction of the lives of some cops working among the residents of a certain type of neighbourhood? Not in my opinion. Among the scummy types, new characters keep cropping up and it can be hard to tell who they are or what they have to do with anything. On top of which, their street lingo proves nearly impossible to follow in print. Granted, the rendering is probably true to life, but this kind of thing comes across much better on screen. However, my resisting the urge to skim over these sections as quickly as possible meant that I was rewarded with a good scene where one of the deadbeats makes an unexpected decision.

But problems with narrative technique abound. The author finds it necessary to do a lot of backing and filling, telling us about stuff that’s gone down, rather than giving us dramatic action in the here and now. The authorial voice also intrudes now and then in the form of what feel like lectures in sociology. Banalities – comparing rain to God’s crying, for instance – crop up by way of poignancy. And you can see the author diligently at work creating bar scenes where background hangers-on argue about pop music. Legitimate atmosphere in a movie, perhaps, but annoying irrelevance in a novel.

Then what of the life of the more noble characters? Too formulaic, for me. Gus Ramone, you see, is an Italian-American married to a black woman who was once a cop. Their marriage comes across as oh-so lovey-dovey, with just the right amount of sexy teasing. They have two good kids, although the boy manages to get into just enough trouble in school to make it seem that we’re dealing with real people. This family's situation is too obviously calculated as a counter-balance to the grungy lives surrounding them.

As for the broader themes that you might expect in a novel, racism comes in for just the right amount of attention to make the book seem edgy. Ramone even reaches a moment of enlightenment about gay issues. I was impressed by a speech of his about the fact that "solving" a murder doesn’t fix anything but most of the lofty thoughts and aspirations of the book struck me as too predictable, too politically correct. I want a novel to discover something new for me.

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