Throne of Blood

Macbeth was the first Shakespeare play I encountered. It captured my imagination more than any other, partly perhaps because it is more concise: it tells a simple tale and wastes no time. I remember at age sixteen that I thought Lady Macbeth was the main influence of the tale, that Macbeth, left to his own devices, would have done nothing.

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Recently, I watched Throne of Blood, which is Akira Kurosawa’s (1957) filmic take on Macbeth. Though dated in some ways, I found it fascinating, and I thought he placed much more emphasis on the Lady Macbeth figure, Asaji. Because Japanese society was so hierarchical and constricted, particularly for women, it allowed Kurosawa to demonstrate Lady Macbeth’s (Asaji’s) influence. Although women were restricted in Macbeth’s time, it was even more so for Japanese women. Kurosawa created a film that showed subtly and cleverly, how a woman can manipulate a man. Washizu (Macbeth) is not very bright, but he has all the power. Asaji must be very careful how she manipulates him. In this sense I think Kurosawa was limited by the constraints of following the play. Asaji’s collapse is too quick, too brief – she was stronger than that (as was lady Macbeth in the original play).

But enough preamble; this is a bit self-indulgent (and long), but I hope you will bear with me. Without having seen the film, this will mean nothing to you, so all I can do is recommend it very highly. Perhaps if any of you watch it, you can then come back and agree or disagree with me.

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 The film begins…

throneblood-001Throne of Blood – The Review

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Too much information

“Distraction is the barrier through which a writer must force his way.”

Saul Bellow

Saul Bellow, in a lecture at Oxford University, said that a typical ‘quality’ newspaper, the London or New York Times, for example, contained considerably more information in one day than even an educated Elizabethan absorbed in an entire lifetime:

“I suspect that an Elizabethan was less confused by what he saw. He would certainly have been less agitated than we are. His knowledge cannot have laid him so close to the threshold of chaos as ours.”

That was in 1990, the Dark Ages in technological terms. How much more information do we absorb today, with the 24 hour bombardment from television, the Internet, Smartphones, iPads, radios and the printed media? More than we are designed to absorb? Can writers rise, clear-headed, above the fray and actually observe their world dispassionately before relating it back coherently to readers and, if they can, will their views be obsolete as quickly as a new phone?

Saul Bellow considered himself above the fray. Although he admitted to a certain daily addiction to ‘the news’, he was more concerned with how to get through to an increasingly distracted audience,

“The concern of tale-tellers and novelists is with human essences neglected and forgotten by a distracted world.”

Surely even Bellow, who died in 2005, would struggle against distraction today.

In 2008 Nicholas Carr wrote an article entitled Is Google Making Us Stupid? Much has been written since on this and related topics, indeed Carr expanded his article into a book, and then another, but I believe this early, brilliant and perceptive article provides most of what we need to know. Carr claimed that the Internet

 “…is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski. I now have almost totally lost the ability to read and absorb a longish article on the web or in print.”

Carr cites a study of visitors to the British Library research sites, which provided access to journals, e-books and other sources of written information. It was found that people exhibited:

 “…a form of skimming activity, hopping from one source to another and rarely returning to any source they’d already visited. They typically read no more than one or two pages of an article or book before they would bounce out to another site. Sometimes they’d save a long article, but there’s no evidence that they ever went back and actually read it.”

Users would,

“power browse horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.”

Rolling news requires that the viewer watch and listen to material that has been repeated hundreds of times already, and is being constantly repeated elsewhere, while also reading about ‘breaking news’ being transmitted in text across the screen, probably with a view of a busy newsroom in the background where newshounds scurry back and forth, dedicated to providing the viewer with news of everything that is happening in the world, as it happens.

Mastering the delights of technology gives the illusion of control. But, for many, is it just an avoidance of life ‘out there’ rather than participation within it? We have the illusion that we are on top of everything, but what, apart from the ability to use gadgets, do we have control of? Since succumbing to a Smartphone I’ve found distraction has increased ten-fold, where once I was available only to calls and texts, now I’m available for everything – always.

Henry James advised writers

“to try to be one of those people on whom nothing is lost.”

Wise and true, I believe, but an Einstein-like big brain is now needed to hold and make some sense of all the information available.

Michael Foley wrote in his excellent The Age of Absurdity (2010) that

“My television and laptop both behave as though they are on first name terms with their owner and have intimate knowledge of his personality and tastes. Nowhere is safe now. I visit my dentist where for, for decades, there has only been dog-eared magazines with missing covers and find a music centre behind the reception desk, a television in the waiting room and a radio playing in the surgery.”

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When Harper (Nellie) Lee and Truman Capote were researching Capote’s In Cold Blood, his ‘factual’ novel about the murder of a wealthy Kansas farmer, his wife and two of their children, they took thousands of pages of notes, interviewing and often befriending residents in their homes. They encountered an unanticipated problem: trying to keep people’s attention away from the TV,

“The nuisance of manic commercials in the background tested Nelle’s and Truman’s patience, especially when the whole point of an interview was to try to talk intimately with someone.”

NBC had recently begun broadcasting from Garden City. It was 1959. Neither Lee nor Capote owned a TV because

“It interferes with work.”

The average American is now subjected to over 3000 advertisements per day. The rest of the world cannot be far behind.

Distraction is nothing new: Virginia Woolf’s dress could be so careless that, according to Quentin Bell, her

“drawers would literally fall down”

and on one occasion,

“everything dropped”

as she was saying goodbye to guests at the door. GK Chesterton once sent a telegram to his wife, saying

“Am in Kettering. Where am I supposed to be?”

Of course their distraction was of a different kind: internal; they had both probably been mentally composing an essay or a novel at the time – this is the internal distraction of the quintessential artist, not the external distraction of modern life.

So how can writers overcome not only today’s distraction of 24 hour information but the noise that accompanies it?

In the 1880s the French poet Jules Laforgue believed that

“the modern world has embarked on a conspiracy to establish that silence does not exist”

and, like Proust, soundproofed his room with cork. Kafka thought that:

“One can never be alone enough when one writes, why there can never be enough silence when one writes, why even night is not night enough.”

 

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“I used to have a little studio in Brooklyn, a couple of blocks from my house – no telephone, not much else. The only thing I ever did there was work. It was perfect. I came in ready to sit at my desk. No television, no way to call out. Didn’t want to be tempted. There’s an old Talmudic belief that you build a fence around an impulse. If that’s not good enough, you build a fence around the fence.”

Wordsworth said that poetry comes from emotion recollected in tranquillity. The tranquillity available to him may have gone forever, but it does not mean that it cannot be found. I find I have to go to expensive extremes to get any serious writing done.  I must have some form of peace to write. I don’t need to be distracted to be diverted from writing. I can do that by myself. If there were an Olympic discipline in prevarication, I’d have a great chance of a medal – although that might be an event with a poor turnout. I planned and wrote by book from home, completed a synopsis and a few chapters and sent them away. When a literary agency told me that they would find me an agent if I could turn my draft into 300 pages of flowing text, I knew there was only one way to do it: get on a plane and go somewhere where I might be able to work without distraction.

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My Bali writing hole

The first half of Caliente was written in the garden of a cottage in Bali, the second half at a villa in Havana. An expensive and indulgent way to get one’s writing done, I agree, but it wouldn’t have happened otherwise. I can’t blame technological distraction entirely for that, but escaping it was nevertheless a part of the process; in neither place did I log on to the Net apart from morning emails from an Internet café in Bali, and in Havana from hotels with Internet access. I left my phone at home. I don’t regret my decision. I wanted to get the book written and I would have done anything to achieve it.

chriscuba-001My second book will take shape during August, in Havana. It will be extremely hot so I will spend the days in air conditioned isolation while I write for 6 to 8 hours per day, before enjoying a cooler, well-earned night out with friends. To complete the book I will probably need to find peace and isolation again. That peace might need to be found closer to home – a cottage in Wales perhaps – and more frugal writing sites may soon become a necessity. Like Michael Foley, I find much of modern life absurd. I have to escape from it before I can write about it.

“I have lived magnificent days.”

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I took the photograph above in 2007 in a restaurant on Obispo, in Old Havana. The restaurant hadn’t been there when I lived in Havana from 2000 to 2002, nor was it on subsequent visits in later years; it had, like many buildings in Havana, been derelict and on the verge of collapse. Practical as ever, the Cubans merely helped the building to fall down, cleared a nice bright space, installed cooking facilities and a bar, put up a canopy for shade and in case of rain, provided music both live and recorded, and it became one of my favourite places.

The mural of Che Guevara was painted by Osvaldo. It was about half complete when I first met him and took a few weeks to finish; he had also painted Ernest Hemingway. His payment for the work seemed to be that he was allowed to take a break every five minutes or so to hustle customers, including me. I was drinking alone one night and happy to buy him mojitos – instant friend.

The image of Che’s face is so ubiquitous that Osvaldo painted from memory; images of Che are everywhere in Cuba – they are also to be found throughout the world, but I’ll get to that later. I asked him if he was a painter. He dismissed the idea; the painting was nothing: he was a musician. Osvaldo was 40 but looked younger; he spoke good English and was impossibly lively, laughing and joking constantly as if he dared not stop. For the price of a few mojitos and the entrance fee to a club or two, I found places and people I otherwise wouldn’t have found. Osvaldo was contemptuous of his subject, Che Guevara, along with Castro, the revolution and the entire Cuban system,

“I am a musician, and what do I get for my talent? Nothing”

he told me, many, many times.

ImageHe was desperate to leave and chased a succession of female tourists in the hope of marrying one. He was just as tireless in this as in everything else: dancing (he was a fantastic dancer), joking, laughing, playing his music (he could play several instruments), singing and generally showing probably hundreds of women a good time. Sadly, when their holidays ended, his reward for this devotion to fun was,

“Thanks for the great time Osvaldo, I’ll never forget you.”

and they left, without him. Osvaldo introduced me to the woman I’m still with today. When I returned later, I asked after Osvaldo

“He’s in Spain”, she said, “He married a tourist.”

I’m pleased for him and hope it’s what he hoped it would be, although I miss him. The restaurant had gone now too; the site remained but it was closed. I don’t know why.*

Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara would have returned Osvaldo’s contempt, and disapproved of me also. While not humourless, and certainly possessing an unquenchable love of life, he was a very serious man:

“I do not cultivate the same interests as tourists”

he once said, putting me firmly in my place, although I do not think of myself as a ‘tourist’.

In April 1960, the freighter La Coubre exploded in Havana harbour while unloading munitions, killing at least 75 people and wounding hundreds. Guevara, a doctor, rushed to the scene to treat the wounded. At the memorial for the dead, a deeply affronted crowd were unusually quiet and reflective. Although it has never been proved who exactly was responsible for the explosion, the act was felt personally and viscerally as an attack on the Cuban people, on their efforts to free themselves from years of colonisation. Fidel Castro made a stirring four hour speech (quite brief for him) in which he used the phrase Patria o Muerte for the first time. While attention was focused on Castro, Che appeared briefly and gazed at the crowd for just for a few seconds. Alberto Korda, Castro’s official photographer, took two quick pictures of him before he disappeared again.  It’s probable that Guevara knew of the photograph before he met his death in Bolivia, but, while it hung on Korda’s wall for seven years, few outside of Cuba knew of its existence. Soon after that the whole world knew of it.

cheKorda cropped his original image to show just the face. It hung in his apartment for 7 years.

chepotraitMuch has been written elsewhere about Guevara, the copyright of the most reproduced photograph of all time, and the fortunes made from the reproduction and adaptation of Korda’s work. While Jim Fitzpatrick, who used the image to create his own stylised posters, signed over the copyright of his image to a Cuban hospital,

“because Cuba trains doctors and then sends them around the world.”

Andy Warhol insisted that profits from his own version of the image went only to Andy Warhol; he wasn’t alone. Korda, and his family since, have shown no interest in profiting from the picture. Che’s wife Aleida and his daughter are involved only in trying to limit the image’s misuse.

cheredKorda’s black and white image has been cropped, adapted, stylised, coloured, digitally altered, used, abused and misused for nearly fifty years, but remains essentially the same: an expression of clear eyed determination to fight injustice that has inspired millions. It helps that the subject was charismatic, handsome and enormously attractive to women. Richard Gott, a journalist and writer who travelled to Cuba in 1963 to report on the revolution, met Guevara. In his book Cuba: A New History he wrote:

Guevara strode in at midnight, accompanied by a small number of friends, bodyguards and hangers on. He was impossibly beautiful. Before the era of the obsessive adulation accorded to musicians, he had the unmistakeable aura of a rock star. People stopped what they were doing and just stared. Like Helen of Troy, he had an allure that people would die for.

Unlike many who have been deified after dying young, Guevara was the real thing. He was painfully honest, courageous and completely dedicated. Sickly as a child in Argentina and asthmatic, he nevertheless enjoyed rolling around in the mud, and at the age of fourteen he progressed from mud to an affair with the housemaid. Friends who spied on him described his enthusiastic lovemaking interspersed with blasts from his inhaler, the same inhaler used during the heated battles of his later career as a revolutionary.

His first experiences of poverty came during a 5000 mile road trip through South America, with his friend Alberto Granado, in 1951. Witnessing the crushing poverty of the rural poor set him on a course from which he never wavered. He abandoned his career as a doctor and, via Guatemala and Mexico, joined the Castro brothers Fidel and Raul in the revolution that toppled Batista in Cuba. It may seem naive now, but he wanted to eradicate poverty and create a more just world; people believed in that possibility then. Che was an incurable idealist while Castro was more interested in politics and power, a Fidelista according to Enrique O’Varez, once a student friend of Castro but one of the first who later tried to kill him.

Fidel Castro said of Che that

“he embodies, in its purest and most selfless form, the internationalist spirit that marks the word of today. “

But Che’s unwavering dedication to truth was painful and irritating to many of his colleagues, including Fidel. His rigid honesty spilled over into his personal life when he refused his wife Aleida’s request to go shopping in their official car,

“No Aleida. You know the car belongs to the government, not to me. Take the bus like everyone else.”

Raul Castro said:

“If the day comes when Guevara realises that he did something dishonest in relation to the revolution, he would blow out his brains.”

According to Alex von Tunzelmann, in her book Red Heat, Guevara had,

“always put his principles, however impossible, before the fundamental urge to win, and keep winning. [His] integrity was the problem.”

Integrity and politics do not go hand in hand. Perhaps only half-jokingly, Fidel said to guests at a dinner party,

”I’m going to send him to Santa Domingo and see if Trujillo kills him.”

After a spell in charge of the National Bank of Cuba, where he nearly wrecked the already fragile economy, and disillusioned with realpolitik, he decided to take revolution elsewhere, disastrously to the African Congo and then to Bolivia.  He wrote a farewell letter to the Cuban people and Fidel which included the line:

“If my final hour comes under distant skies, my last thoughts will be for this people and especially for you.”

Castro, while publicly expressing sadness at his departure, must have been glad to see him go.

Later, in Bolivia, he believed that the people would rise up as they had in Cuba, to bring down an oppressive government. Richard Gott wrote that

“He believed with passion that small groups of armed men could defeat established armies, as they had done in Cuba.”

He was wrong. The people were frightened and cowed, too afraid to act; many were willing to betray Guevara and his small band of followers. The end was inevitable. He was isolated with just 24 companions. His death came in a school room at the hands of a Bolivian soldier. Accounts vary, but it is certain that the Bolivians wanted him dead and to make it appear that he had died in battle. They also wanted his face untouched so that they could display him, in death, to the world. It seems certain that he did spit at his executioners and say;

“I know you’ve come to kill me. Shoot. Do it. Shoot me, you coward! You are only going to kill a man!”

A Cuban sniper, Felix Rodriguez, working for the CIA was also present. He claims that he gave the order to shoot Guevara and asked him if wanted to say anything to his family. Guevara replied:

“Tell my wife to remarry and try to be happy.”

In the last letter to his children he wrote:

”Your father has been a man who acted according to his beliefs and certainly has been faithful to his convictions. Until always, little children. I still hope to see you again.

A really big kiss and a hug from Papa.”

chealeidaThere is no doubting his bravery and ability when he had loyal followers, demonstrated when he won a great victory at Santa Clara against all odds. The battle was accurately portrayed in Steven Soderbergh’s epic film, Che. Over 50000 Americans stood, heads bowed, in front of the Lincoln memorial on the news of his death, while ironically it went almost unnoticed in Moscow where disdain was expressed for his adventurism. In the White House, the news was received with satisfaction. Walt Rostow, advisor to President Kennedy, said, “They finally got the son of a bitch. The last of the romantic guerrillas.”

So much has been written about Guevara that would not have been written without the existence of Korda’s photograph. He has become a symbol of revolt, of hope in an increasingly homogenised world, where half the people live dangerous, poverty stricken and fearful lives while most of the other half don’t care or avert their eyes. For a multitude of reasons Cuba’s revolution failed, although it tried, and remains a symbol of hope to many. Cuba can with justification be criticised; Che, through dying young, remains pure; his image portrays the man: his beliefs, his honesty, his courage and his humanity. Whatever happens to Cuba, however history judges Castro (and that argument will never end), that image and its power to inspire will endure. He became worth more dead than alive; not only to Fidel but to radical politics.

That it didn’t inspire Osvaldo is understandable. He wanted a better life. I hope he found it. I’ve seen that image of Che a thousand times and appreciate its power, but I prefer the man behind the legend: the man who set off with his friend to explore South America, who was inspired to action by the poverty he witnessed; the young man determined to have a good time, who fell in and out of love; the man who in battle cared nothing for cleanliness and wagered his compañeros that his shorts would stand up independently if he removed them – they did – and he won his bet; the young man who said after his South American trip,

“I began to realize then that there were things as important as being a famous researcher or as important as making a substantial contribution to medicine: to aid those people”

and never wavered from that promise; the man, who facing death, spat at his executioners and called them cowards. Irritating and unrealistic he may have been, but the image speaks of someone willing to strive for ‘impossible’ principles. Where many revolutionaries have proved to be frauds, fame seekers and sociopaths, Guevara was absolutely genuine.

I told Osvaldo the story of Che’s shorts. He didn’t stop laughing for ten minutes. I think Osvaldo would have liked that young man too, but times have changed. Richard Gott met Guevara just once. Strangely, he was present four years later in the aftermath of his death and, with a Cuban-American CIA agent, Eduardo Gonzalez, was one of only two people present who had seen Che Guevara alive and could identify the body. When Gott asked him where he came from, he replied

“From nowhere.”

Exactly.

“I have lived magnificent days.”

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*   The restaurant has since reopened. It’s still great, but in a different way. Osvaldo’s murals have gone.