Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Words at Work

23rd of November is the International Day of Words, the date  the Museum of the Word (Museo de la Palabra)  open.To celebrate the anniversary of the word as a bond to humankind, there is a 100-word flash fiction competition click organised by the Cesar Egido Serrano Foundation. 

I believe that words are like double-edged swords, with the right phrases, used with the right tone and intention, they can persuade, pacify and even inspire, with the wrong tone, they can condescend, sound righteous and unkind. A comment or criticism can be constructive or destructive. It is a matter of words. 

Words make one ponder. They also make one angry and wonder. Often the less is said the better if words will only cause hurt as one may forgive but not forget the harsh words made by another.

I am a bookworm. When I walk into a bookstore, the sight of the books stacked on the bookshelves comforts me. I go to a bookstore not knowing what I am seeking but there will always be something that catches my interest and it does not take long for me to pick up a good read. Words are powerful and I am often thrilled by beautiful writings by words wizards whose voices simply captivate and one must apply the mind to read them.

What we say may or may not be what we think or what we mean, thus we must watch what we say and how we say things. One must choose one’s words wisely before one expresses one’s thoughts, otherwise, it may cause misunderstandings.

I only wish that the love of language could be taught. Words describe and transcend all that define us, our beliefs, our insecurities, our hypocrisies, our truths and the ordinary events that shape our lives. Poignant writings touch our hearts, humour tickle and make us see the lighter side of life while thought-provoking passages find its way to stir our conscience. 

When I stumble upon good writings, I  fervently hope that more people read them. And I truly believe that it is through reading that one cultivates empathy and  better understanding of humankind.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Turning Point

Some Scientific study has shown that couples breath at the same rate and have synchronized heart beats indicating that romantically involved couples are linked on a physiological

Every morning, there is an elderly couple who go for their walk in the neighbourhood where I live. The man is tall and lean while the woman is not as tall but lean as well. To avoid traffic, the man and his wife often walk in a single file. The man silently falls into step behind the woman whose voice is occasionally audible when she utters something to her husband. When the mornings are warm, they share an umbrella and walk almost side by side, the man slightly behind the woman. On the occasions when I walk my dog and as our paths cross, we greet one another. Then they  continue to walk in companionable silence. 

The Buried Giant written by Kazuo Ishiguro is an allegory and the story is metaphorical. 

The Buried Giant  is a novel about Axl and Beatrice, an elderly couple going from one village to the next, hoping  to visit their long lost son who had left home since young. The story is set in post-Arthurian England about the sixth or seventh century when the Britons and the Saxons were at war. The Saxons and Britons live side by side in an uneasy peace during  a mythical time of ogres, sprites and dragons — most of all the she-dragon Querig whom the warrior, Wistan has set out to kill. In the story, one warrior needs to kill the dragon Querig as badly as another needs to keep her alive. Wistan has rescued Edwin, a boy stolen by ogres. Axl reminds Wistan of someone he met as a child. As the story progresses, Axl begins to remember his own past, as a soldier of some kind. The rescued boy, Edwin, who the villagers believe that he has a wound that is caused by a fiend is in danger in his Saxon settlement. It is the villagers' conviction that once bitten by a fiend, the boy will before long turn fiend himself and wreak horror within their walls.They fear him and should he remain here, he'll suffer a terrible fate. So the boy and the warrior join the elderly couple on their journey to their son’s village.

Axl and Beatrice love each other deeply and they are at an age when their memories have become foggy and  unreliable, But all the people in their community, and even those in neighboring villages, Briton and Saxon, appear to be having the same difficulties in remembering things from the past. They are told that there is a mist spread by the breath of she-dragon , Querig that robs memories: good memories and bad, lost children, old rancors and wounds. 

Beatrix is afraid that she cannot recall their most treasured memories. Here is a snippet of the story between Beatrix and her husband.

     'What are you saying, princess? How can our lover wither? Isn’t it stronger now than when we were foolish young lovers?’

     ‘But Axl, we can’t even remember those days. Or any of the years between. We don’t remember our fierce quarrels or the small moments we enjoyed and treasured. We don’t remember our son or why he’s away from us.’

     'We can make all those memories come back, princess. Besides, the feeling in my heart for your will be there just the same, no matter what I remember or forget. Don’t you feel the same, princess?’

 The husband wakes up with a memory so the wife is eager to know.
        Oh , Axl! What memory was that ?’
      ‘I was remembering a time we were walking through a market or a festival. We were in a village, but not our own, and you were wearing that light green cloak with the hood.’
        ' This must be a dream or else a long time ago, husband. I have no green cloak.’
      ‘ I’m talking of long ago, right enough, princess. A summer’s day, but there was a chill wind in this place where we were, and you’d placed the green cloak around you, though you kept the hood from your head. A market or perhaps some festival. It was a village on a slope with goats in a pen where you first set foot in it.’
          ‘And what was it we were doing there, Axl?’

Axl remembers that he and Beatrix was walking arm in arm and there was a stranger , a man from the village, suddenly in their path. Axl also remembers that the stranger took one glance at his wife and  stared at his wife like he was beholding a goddess and the stranger had said he had never set eyes on a woman so beautiful  and he reached forward and touched Beatrice’s arm.

Beatrice then recall something but not clearly and she thinks the stranger was a drunken man and asks Axl if that was the day when the latter grew jealous and quarreled with the man , the way they were almost run out of the village. Axl denies having any jealous quarrel with the stranger and tells Beatrice that till this day he still feels the pride rising through him at the stranger’s words : The most beautiful vision he’d seen. Beatrix says,

     ‘ If you felt proud , Axl, and you were jealous also. Didn’t you stand up to the man even though he was drunk?’
    ‘It’s not how I remember it, princess. Perhaps I just made a show of being jealous as a sort of jest. But I would have known the fellow meant no harm. It’s what I woke with this morning, though it’s been many years.’
   ‘If that’s how you’ve remembered it, Axl, let it be the way it was. With this mist upon us, any memory’s a precious thing and we’d best hold tight to it.’

 The elderly couple long for Querig's end thinking only of the return of their own dear memories. But will the giant, once well buried stir or rise again?The sense of the past lingers on as we know history  tends to repeat itself.

Memories are valuable as they are who we are but some memories are best slipped away. While some thoughts can inspire, some can hurt too. Amnesia can be a godsend in some instances as illustrated by the uncomplicated and innocent love of Axl and Beatrix and as they begin to remember things, there is a subtle shift in their love for each other. While some memories  may haunt us, but  for past wounds to heal, remembering the past is necessary  for reconciliation, if at all, to take place. As unresolved past remains buried,  history is thus  continuously present. 

Kazuo Ishiguro  has cleverly crafted a fantasy novel where he has invented a mythical landscape set against ancient time when England was first created but the core of the story is still very alive in the present context and its themes relevant to the modern world. 

The Buried Giant  is a wonderful  tale.  Some of the characters  possess  some mystical powers and there are several twists in the story,  indeed a mesmerising journey.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

What do we know?

I feel  the rising sense of urgency particularly as the year is ending soon. So many good reads, so little time. I  often feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of books that  look like  such delicious and promising reads. They either make you want to give up writing or compel you to write more diligently.
I have to temporarily vacate the room that  I use as my study. Although I only have to give up the study for a couple of weeks, yet I feel rather distracted and unsettled. I know why I feel how I feel. When I think about lending the space where I immerse myself in reading and writing, I get anxious and I  can no longer focus well.  I have to move some of my books around and remember where I have placed them. I anticipate  that I am going to feel uncomfortable in my own home and I know I must change my mindset to  deal with the situation. 

In Zoe Heller’s debut novel , Everything You Know,  Willy Muller is a curmudgeon and embittered journalist who has survived imprisonment after being convicted for murdering his wife, Oona. 'In 1970, during a marital spat, Oona broke her skull on a refrigerator door handle and died.' The story is not about whether or not he killed his wife, it is about redemption, as his financial adviser says to him, “Only when you die do you run out of chances to be good.”

The story opens with Willy waking up in the hospital , recovering from a heart attack. A post-trauma counsellor pays him a visit with a cassette tape, entitled  “ Meditation Chants  and Prayers for the  Sick”.  His doctor tells him that depression and irritability are common symptoms among cardiac patients.

In Willy’s narration, ‘ Naturally, I resented his banal diagnosis. Maybe this has nothing to do with my heart! I wanted to shout at him. Maybe I’m having a nervous breakdown!

All summer I have been feeling fretful, off kilter – lurching back and forth between deathly exhaustion and manic energy. Work has been a big problem. My pending task is to write the autobiography of Reginald Boon, former king of daytime television. But last year, shortly before I signed on for the Reg work, my agent managed to sell some producer the film option on my memoir, To Have and to Hold, for fifteen grand. And then, when the project got taken on by Curvon Studios, he got me hired to write the screenplay for another twenty. …….’

Willy is having a mental block in his writings, he has been stuck on the tenth sentence of Chapter One for the Boon project.  He ‘ just can’t produce the lighthearted, anecdotal  look at the life and times of one of TV-land’s greats that is required.’ click

The other thing is that he has just received a parcel in the mail from his youngest daughter, Sadie who killed herself four months ago.  She has sent him her journal that she started writing when she was a teenager. Though it was not his original intention, he ends up reading Sadie’s journal. 

In Willy’s voice, “ If this was my daughter reaching out from the grave to mess with my conscience, I was having none of it.
    At first, my progress was very slow. I found that I was unable to look at the journal for much more than ten minutes at a time without getting pissed off and developing pains in my gut – terrible, fluttery pains, like the first, prophetic murmurings of a bad clam. But I have slowly grown more resilient. At this point, I am able to read for quite long stretches without so much as a wince. I have even stopped humming loudly when I get to particularly uncomfortable passages.’

When my father passed away,  my sister found the journals kept by our parents. My mother had only written a short passage that covered only half a page while my father wrote pages about his feelings for my mother.  I feel uncomfortable reading about my parents’ courtship and yet I somehow feel consoled even though what he once had for my mother has taken a different form. After all change is constant, what do we know?

In Everything You know, the journals by Sadie can be rather disturbing and difficult for her father to read because she is so lonely and sad. Heller writes in Willy's voice:

'Sadie might have done herself in any number of vulgar or grotesque ways. She might have been a jumper. Or a slasher. She might have hanged herself from a light fixture after listening to Satanic messages in pop songs played backwards. As it was, she merely mixed herself a muddy cocktail using a plastic pestle and mortar borrowed from her daughter's Little Miss Chef set. So lest there be any confusion, let me acknowledge right here: It Could Have Been Worse.'

Also in Willy’s voice, he speaks of his wife, Oona.
It was an important part of Oona’s allure when I first met her – her clear and unwavering views on matters of style. She wasn’t fashionable like Heidi. On the contrary, she was always tatty to look at. Yet she had an absolute faith in her own judgments- so much so that she didn’t really perceive them as judgments at all, just simple matters of fact. I was a disapproving young man when I met her. I wrote poetry about coal miners and the class struggle and made jokes about tainting Oona’s smug English genealogy with my sickly mittel –European blood . I pretended to abhor her upper-middle-classness. But in truth, I was covetous. Oona had gone to Oxford, where she had run the Labour club and done something important at the Union and own the Herbert FuckFace Memorial prize for an essay on John Hume. She was a big one for pointing out the logical errors – the “woolly thinking” – in other people’s arguments. Someone once said to Oona,” You think too much,” and I saw her flush with pride. She was meant to end up running the BBC or being the Director of Public Prosecutions or something (She didn’t , of course. She married me and had two kids and did a bunch of pissy little jobs for the Labour Party. But neither of us knew that then.)

Zoe Heller is a brilliant novelist. While Heller’s characters are not likeable, her terrific writing makes  the novel a  compelling read. 

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Just life

'The truth knocks on the door and you say," Go away, I'm looking for the truth," and so it goes away.' -Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Every now and then  I do like a boost to my fading passion about the law. I enjoy watching lawyers in action on screen or read a fiction about lawyers. In all the movies and television drama scripts and novels where the protagonists are lawyers, all wrongs will be put right and the one who has been outrageously wronged will be vindicated simply because justice must prevail.

In The Whistle written by John Grisham, there  is a female lawyer who is trying to do things right and there is also a mob kingpin who does not care about what is right and what is wrong. What happens when he has a judge on his payroll? The hook itself is  intriguing.

Lacy Stoltz  is an  investigator for the Florida Board on Judicial Conduct. She is pretty and smart and not easily cowed. A previously disbarred lawyer is back in business and he claims to know of a Florida judge who is receiving cash bribes from a group of monsters, known as the Coast Mafia. Lacy and her colleague Hugo Hatch thus find themselves investigating into the Honorable Claudia McDover, “a Florida gal who just happens to be the most corrupt judge in the history of America.” and her connection with one Vonn Dubose ( not his real name)  who is powerful and greedy.

Lacy enjoys her solitary life while Hugo, her fellow investigator, struggles to make ends meet with a wife and four children. They live in Tallahassee. The previously disbarred lawyer point them to the Native American-operated casino that  takes in a half-billion dollars a year in cash . The casino development in question  is also in the Florida Panhandle and when some members of the tribe oppose the casino, they get killed and those  tribe leaders and their people who go along have jobs and share the profits As the story unfolds, there are more characters and the plot thickens. For Lacy, she finds her role as an investigator is treading on  dangerous terrain and the informant and the whistler blower have  to start running for the mobsters have ways to track them down.

“ We’re not cops with guns,” Lacy says. They are only lawyers with subpoenas. Eventually they have the attention of the FBI who initially shows no interest in the corrupt casino. 

John Grisham’s style of narration is very matter of fact. He writes,

‘On October 5, the first Wednesday of the month ,Judge McDover left her office an hour earlier than usual and drove the same condo at Rabbit Run, her second visit there since the filing of the complaint that accused her of receiving the unit in a bribery scheme. She parked her Lexus in the same spot, leaving room for another vehicle, and entered the condo. She gave no indication of being the least bit jumpy or nervous,never once looked over her shoulder or up and down the street.

Inside , she checked the patio door and all windows. She went to her vault and spent a few moments admiring her “assets”, goodies and she’d been collecting for so long that she now believed she deserved them. Cash and diamonds in small, portable, fireproof safes. Locked and cabinets filled with jewelery, rare coins, vintage silver goblets and cups and flatware, limited singed fist editions of famous novels, ancient crystal, and small paintings form contemporary artists. All of it had been acquired by casino cash, skillfully laundered through the systematic purchasing from dozens of dealers who never suspected that she and Phyllis Turban were violating those perky reporting laws. The genius of their scheme was patience. Buy fine and rare goods in small quantities and, with time, watch their collection grow.’

Reading John Grisham is akin to drinking an espresso that gives a quick lift as in a badly needed  shot to kick in  the  dose of optimism that justice will prevail. The inspiration booster is  much needed  even when you know in reality, legal battles are never open and shut and much more complicated. The truth is an elusive goal.  

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

As it happened...

In the month of August, I made a couple of  day trips to Kuala Lumpur. Each time I made my little detour to the BookXcess Bookshop at Starling Mall before heading to the airport. During one such trip,  I was cutting the time rather fine and ended up having to take an Uber car to the airport as  I did not want to be caught in downtown traffic and risk missing my return flight home. I had to prevent myself from thinking that if I had been more prudent and managed to catch the airport bus from the public transport hub, the cost of an Uber car ride would be equivalent to the price of one book or several that I could purchase, depending on which bookstore I go to. The Uber car driver was rather chatty. By the end of my one hour plus ride, I knew that he was  a father of four boys and he and his wife would long for a girl.  He also told me that he would like to move his family to Australia as he had dreams of having a farm and living there. Years ago, he had visited his aunt in Brisbane while she was there and he really liked it then. I hope he would make his dream a reality .
As it happened, when I arrived at the airport well before time and joined a throng of passengers who were seated at the boarding gate, I was told that  the flight would be delayed and we would not take off for at least another forty-five minutes. I had all these books that I had bought and I was too exhausted and famished to read any of them. What a bummer.

Some months ago, I lent a friend my daughter’s copy of  The Girl on the Train  click  and she returned the book just before she left for France. She had not quite finished reading the novel so l decided to get her a copy of the book by Paula Hawkins from the BookXcess webstore click. She told me, " I think I know whodunnit"  and she could not be more wrong. I could not tell her the ending as that would be a spoiler.  When I placed the order, I bought along with it  The Believers by Zoe Heller. The Believers is a novel about a dysfunctional family living in Greenwich Village in New York.

In 1962, eighteen year old Audrey Howard meets Joel Litvinoff, a prominent civil rights leftist lawyer from America at a party. He is attracted to her, asks her out  and then proposes to her. Despite an age gap of some thirteen to fourteen years between them, she takes him up on his offer as she feels that is her chance to break away from her mundane life as a typist in suburban London. 

Forty years on,  Audrey has to re-examines everything she thought she knew about her marriage to Joel when he suffers a stroke and ends up in comatose. Audrey and Joel have two daughters, Karla and Rosa. They also have an adopted son, Lenny who is into drugs. While Joel lies in the hospital, Audrey and children have to battle their own demons and with each other. Ultimately they each have to decide on what they truly believe in. Rosa, a disillusioned revolutionary, decides to get connected with her Jewish roots. As she grapples with Orthodox Judaism, her unhappily married sister, Karla  is falling for an unlikely suitor at the hospital where she works.

Audrey and Joel had always prided themselves in accepting mortality as facts of life. When the doctor advises Audrey that Joel's vegetative condition will not improve, she  refuses to agree to  terminating the life sustaining equipment.Once upon a time, Audrey's brash manner had been a mere posture but 'somewhere along the way, when she hadn't been paying attention, her temper had ceased to be a beguiling party act that could be switched on and off at will.'

Here are snippets from the novel. 

At the edges of her fury with the doctor, there was an embarrassed awkwardness of her own hypocrisy. She and Joel had never been sentimentalists about death. Over the years, their discussions about their own mortality had always been showily phlegmatic. ‘ When the day comes that I can’t take a piss on my own,” Joel had told her a few years back when he started having trouble with prostate, I want you to have me chopped up for horsemen,okay? How often had they shaken their heads ruefully at the dotty sanctity-of-life types who insisted on keeping their loved ones alive when they were no more sensate than parsnips?How often had they congratulated themselves on the fact that, as atheists, they were uniquely well-equipped to face the end of life with dignity? ‘We’ve got nothing to be scared about,’Joel always said. ‘We know there’s nothing else.’

      Yet now that the discussion had departed the comfortable realm of dinner- table posturing - now that  she was confronting the possibility of actually presiding over her husband’s death - she understood how cowardly their former bravado had been. All those jokes about not wasting public health resources and suffocating one another with plastic bags —— what had they really been but avoidance? Refused to confront the horror of extinction?’

On arriving home, Rosa went straight to her bedroom, knelt down before her dresser and began rummaging through the bottom drawer. At length, she unearthed an ancient pack of Marlboro Lights. She laid the cigarettes on the bed and considered them. The mere act of smoking, evil as it was, was not yet sufficiently evil for her purpose. She stood up and went down the hall to run a bath. Here was decadence : she would smoke in the tub.’

In The Believers, the dialogues created by Zoe Heller are animated and witty and the caricatures of the characters are wry, some not so likeable but they feel real. 

Zoe Heller is a brilliant novelist as she describes the different characters with acute and unsentimental observations and captures candidly the essence of human follies, hypocrisies, contradictions and insecurities. 

After having read The Believers by Zoe Heller, I cannot wait to read Everything You Know that I recently bought  from Kinokuniya webstore. It is a debut novel  by the same author.

Friday, October 13, 2017


We know things are never quite what they seem but more often than not, we are afraid to rock  the 'place' we are in and look closely and openly at where we are. 

Good writers have the innate ability to describe so aptly the psychic of the ordinary people and their relationships that you find their fictionalized characters real and the circumstances that they have landed themselves in are completely plausible.

Trust written by Mike Bullen explores suburbia, friendships and contemporary relationships. It is about two couples. Greg and Amanda have been together for thirteen years and have two young daughters while Dan and Sarah have been married for sixteen years and have one teenage son, Russell. 

Greg and Dan work in sales for the British division of the same multinational computer company and they both spend half their time on the road and go on sales conference every year. 

Greg tells Dan," What happens on tour, stays on tour, right? Our little secret.

The story is essentially about how one bad decision can turn a couple's seemingly happy life in disarray and help turn an unhappy couple around and back in love again. Mike Bullen's debut novel is fast moving and it feels like watching one of those feel good movies when I read it.  It is a fast and light read interjected with good humour and a touch of realism.

Saving Grace by Jane Green  is a women’s fiction about trust and relationships. It is more intense and definitely a page turner.  

Grace Chapman is married to bestselling author Ted and lives in a picture perfect farmhouse on the Hudson River in New York state. It was whirlwind romance, passion and  excitement. Then  life gets hard when she jumps as she sees the barn door open, Ted emerging, she wonders the kind of mood he is in.

When Ellen, their old assistant leaves, Beth becomes their new assistant. As Beth is not only organised, she is  also eager to learn and smart,is Beth too good to be true?

When Grace loses her interest in cooking and finds her life coming apart, she fears she is going crazy just like her mother. 

   ‘ There is nothing Grace loves more than being alone in her kitchen, surrounded by food, inspirational recipes scattered on the counter in front of her as she tries out new dishes. When she is working on a book, she will use assistants, but it is these moments , when it is just Grace, alone in her kitchen experimenting, that makes her happiest of all. ‘

In the beginning, when she first met Ted, it felt as if she had fallen into the kind of life that only happened to other people, and usually only in movies. It was a life she determined to enjoy while it lasted, convinced it wouldn’t last long, for Ted could have his pick. There were always women more exciting, more glamorous, more beautiful than she.’

She loved the house before Ted’s moods had the ability to discombobulate her in the way they do now.  In the early days of marriage,  she could  laugh it off but the years have taken their toll and she is no longer finding it easy to deal with his rage and mood swings.

'She used to fight back. She doesn't anymore. She withdraws into a well of pain and resentment, removing herself .....'

' This life had made her so happy, for so many years, she had never wanted anything or anyone else. She had never thought to question her role, to question her happiness. Most of the time she truly felt that  somewhere up high, perhaps to make up for the hell of her childhood, the gods, the angels, were smiling upon her.
      She had been charmed. She led a charmed life. At least if she didn't look too closely; at least if you pretended, as she did so well for so long, that if you put on a good enough act, it would make it so. But then the gods and angels had deserted her and she fell to the ground with a crash. And now? This is a decision of necessity ..........'

Jane Green writes proficiently. She has included some mouth watering recipes in  Saving Grace. 

In both Trust and Saving Grace, the women are compelled to confront demons that have been haunting them for years. Amanda in Trust and Grace in Saving Grace are afraid to become like their mothers. In Trust, Amanda’s mother repeatedly condoned her husband’s infidelity whereas Grace’s mother is manic depressive and bipolar. Her mother had mood swings so bad that Grace had lived in fear throughout her childhood. 

In a book of fiction or a film , there must always be a resolution and that is what we expect when we read fictions or watch a film. If only life were so straightforward.
San Sebastian

Thursday, September 28, 2017

A Perfect Sunday

Overcast weather is perfect weather for a Sunday.

I  read profusely. I read to gain better understanding of  thoughts in general  and the very nature of our being or the very being of  our nature.

I read about the trajectory of  life, the state of  our being and hope to expand my mind. I read to write better sentences. Mostly I read for pleasure. I read more than one book at a time and try to be an omnivorous reader.

Words persuade, dissuade, describe and transcend all that define us, our beliefs, our insecurities, our hypocrisies, our truths and the ordinary events that shape our lives. 

It was one of those Sundays when the weather was perfect for reading outdoor. Even if it is  overcast weather, I am too wary of pigmentation to sit in the sun. Sunbathing is a thing of the past since I discovered how pigmentations have found their way to my skin.

Our dog does not  enjoy solitude and I have found a happy compromise. 
After some rain storms, the dog wanted the sun as much as I did. She left me alone when I read under the porch. She just wanted me to be in the vicinity, how adorable. I told  her , “ Maybe you can read in your next life.”  She seemed  to understand  and  lied there next to me, looking contented. She did her downward facing dog stretch like what she does all the time. She is natural at it, it is her pose after all.

When our  dog moved away from my feet, I knew  the sun had  reappeared.

We want the breeze and the sun. We want to have it all.

In the early evening, our dog hopped onto the wooden table where my book was placed, it was as if she wanted to see what book I was reading. After dinner , I took her  for an evening walk. She behaved so it was good. I never know how to train a dog.

I was reading The Noise of Time  written by  Julian Barnes . The story is based on the life of Dimitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich, a Russian composer and how the tumultuous evolution of Soviet Union has affected him in his music compositions. The novel begins with the composer on the landing of his apartment block in the middle of the night waiting by the lift thinking that he would be arrested and persecuted as his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk click has met with Stalin's disapproval and public denunciation. The year was 1936.

The life of Shostakovich is full of ironies and contradictions.
In The Noise of Time, 
' One of the few places where optimism and pessimism could happily coexist -- indeed , where the presence of both is necessary for survival -- was family life. So, for instance, he loved Nita (optimism) , but did not know if he was a good husband (pessimism). He was an anxious man, and aware that anxiety makes people  egotistical and bad company. Nita would go off to work; but the moment she arrived at her Institute, he would telephone to ask when she was coming home. He could see that this was annoying: but his anxiety would just get the better of him.

   He loved the children ( optimism ) , but was not sure if he was a good father (pessimism). Sometimes he felt his love for his children was abnormal. even morbid. Well, life is not a walk across a field, as the saying goes.'

 Julian Barnes guides us through Shostakovich's career and meditates on the meaning of art and its place in a society that commands reeducation for artists.

' Art belongs to everybody and nobody. Art belongs to all time and no time. Art belongs to those who create it and those who savour it. Art no more belongs to the People and the Party than it once belonged to the aristocracy and the patron. Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time. Art does not exist for art's sake: it exists for people's sake. But which people, and who defines them? He always thought of his own art as anti-aristocratic. Did he write, as his detractors maintained, for a bourgeois cosmopolitan elite? No. Did he write, as his detractors wanted him to, for the Donbass miner weary form his shift and in need of a soothing pick-me-up? No. He wrote music for everyone and no one. He wrote music for those who best appreciated the music he wrote, regardless of social origin. He wrote music for the ears that could hear. And he knew, therefore, that all true definitions of art are circular, and all untrue definitions of art ascribe to it a specific function.'

The following passage strikes a chord with me.

' In an ideal world, a young man should not be an ironical person. At that age, irony prevents growth, stunts the imagination. It is best to start life in a cheerful and open state of mind, believing in others, being optimistic, being frank with everyone about everything. And then, as one comes to understand things and people better, to develop a sense of irony. The natural progression of human life is from optimism to pessimism, and a sense of irony helps temper pessimism, helps produce balance, harmony.
          But this was not an ideal world, and so irony grew in sudden and strange ways. Overnight, like a mushroom; disastrously, like a cancer.'

The question thus is: Could irony protect Shostakovich's music? All his life, he had avoided joining the party but in 1960, when Shostakovich no longer feared for his life, he was required to join the Communist Party to endorse the new direction taken by his country and he had to accept the chairmanship of the Russian Federation Union of Composers.

' So irony becomes a defence of the self and the soul ; it lets you breather on a day-to -day basis. You write in a letter that someone is a 'marvellous person' and the recipient knows to conclude the opposite. 

The composer  had lived long enough to be dismayed by himself.

'And how would he now appear to his younger self, standing by the roadside as a haunted face in an official car swept past? Perhaps this was one of the tragedies life plots for us: it is our destiny to become in old age what in youth we would have most despised.'

' He attended Party meetings as instructed. He let his mind wander during the endless speeches, merely applauding whenever others applauded. On one occasion, a friend asked why he had clapped a speech in the course of which Khrennikov had violently criticised him. The friend thought he was being ironic or, possibly, self-abusing. But the truth was , he hadn't been listening.'

All  his life, the composer had relied on irony.
So irony becomes a defence of the self and the soul ; it lets you breather on a day-to -day basis. You write in a letter that someone is a 'marvellous person' and the recipient knows to conclude the opposite. 

' If you turned your back on irony, it curdled into sarcasm. And what good was it then?Sarcasm was irony which has lost its soul. 

The Noise of Time  is descriptive about how the composer had to submit to Power and lived through the complexities of life under tyranny. Despite repressive regimes and official intimidation, Shostakovich managed to compose music and produce great symphonies against the noise of time. If you ask to whom does music belong to, not being able to answer is the correct answer as Julian Barnes writes, ' Because music, in the end, belonged to music. That was all you could say, or wish for.'

Julian Barnes is absolutely prolific and his prose thought-provoking. He is a brilliant writer.