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ARTS ROUND-UP 2013 - part 3

Star critics remind us of the arts events they were most impressed by in the last 12 months, take 3

BOOKS

When a debut novel attracts the level of attention that Leaving The Atocha Station (Granta, £7.99) has, some may approach it with caution or cynicism. But Ben Lerner's instinctive and invigorating narrative does not disappoint.

The book is named after a poem by John Ashbery who, alongside Lorca, is quite literally carried throughout the novel in protagonist Adam Gordon's bag.

The entire book, in fact, is driven by poetry. Gordon is a poet on a foundation-funded research project, moving him from the US to Spain.

El Poeta - as he is affectionately, or perhaps mockingly, called by his spliff-smoking companions - creates routines and identities for himself, almost presenting himself as a character in a novel.

In a different country, where the money and the language seem unreal, Adam finds that he uses both vehicles in an attempt to influence people's impression of him.

This creates comical sketches throughout the novel where he pieces together sentences in Spanish which he hopes makes him alluring to others rather than revealing his lack of direction and poor grasp of the language.

Later events add to this sense of society as spectacle as Adam bears witness to the tragic terrorist attack on Madrid. He observes the hysteria firsthand, and then opens his browser window and calls up the New York Times. "The article described the helicopters I could hear above me," he confirms. This distance is captured well throughout the novel, almost an out-of-body realism.

Using stream-of-consciousness devices in a unique and exciting way, Lerner has achieved an exhilarating debut which has both rhythm and resonance.

Like Lerner's debut, Nancy Stout's biography of Cuban revolutionary Celia Sanchez One Day In December: Celia Sanchez And The Cuban Revolution (Monthly Review Press, £25) attracted plenty of praise before it emerged in print.

Stout has produced an extraordinary biography, charting Celia's involvement from initial organisation of Fidel Castro's landing to her remarkable transformation of thorny thickets into a preliminary training ground for rebel soldiers.

The author takes a narrative approach to Sanchez's role in the revolution, capturing the personalities involved and recreating the spirit of revolt through vivid detail.

She honours Sanchez's legacy without delving too deep into the intrigue surrounding her relationship with Fidel Castro - previously the only route through which her name had drawn attention in the English-speaking world. Instead, we meet an elegant, tenacious and resolute woman who remains Cuba's frontline heroine to this day.

Angel Dahouk

 

The Cyrus Cylinder And Ancient Persia: New Beginning For The Middle East by John Curtis, published by the British Museum (£25), was one of my reads of the year.

"I have enabled all the lands to live in peace," is inscribed on the cylinder (above), the Babylonian cuneiform dating from the 6th century BC. The UN has chosen it as a symbolic first-ever recorded declaration of human rights with a copy prominently displayed in its HQ yet Israel's first prime minister Ben Gurion, though a devotee, learnt zilch from it.

There is no denying its power to puzzle, fascinate and inspire and therein perhaps lies the cylinder's value to humanity.

A thoroughly enjoyable, informative and beautifully illustrated read.

Slavoj Zizek, like Marmite, can only generate only two responses. You're either captivated by his ego or you're not. In Demanding The Impossible (Polity, £12.99), he is understandably agitated by a world at the mercy of neoliberalism and more than a touch exasperated by the lack of globalised responses but admits to being clueless himself.

The title paraphrases Che Guevara, whose resilience and selfless commitment ought to inspire us everyday and if Zizek's peripatetic philosophising helps to do that so much the better.

Michal Boncza

 

It's been a good year for those wanting to get beyond the official propaganda of post-9/11 US-British foreign policy.

The US journalist Jeremy Scahill's Dirty Wars: The World Is A Battlefield (Serpent's Tail, £15.99) is a brilliant exposé of the dark underbelly of the so-called war on terror. Travelling to Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen, Scahill gives a voice to the victims of US drone strikes, proxy wars, night raids and rendition programmes.

Unlike many journalists and intellectuals he has not been blinded by the quality of first black president's rhetoric. Instead he argues that Obama has "ultimately legitimised and expanded" many of the policies of the Bush administration.

The recent agreement between the US and Iran suggests the likelihood of a US attack has receded somewhat. Of course, the government and media misinformation will continue, which makes A Dangerous Delusion: Why The West Is Wrong About Nuclear Iran (Elliot and Thompson, £8.99) a very important and timely book.

At just 107 pages long there is little fat, with co-authors Peter Oborne and David Morrison expertly taking apart the persistent myths that surround Iran's nuclear programme and its dealings with the West.

Who knew, for example, that signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty promise to share nuclear technology for peaceful purposes - something the west has clearly contravened with Iran since 1979?

Soldier Box: Why I Won't Return To The War On Terror (Verso, £12.99) is former soldier Joe Glenton's personal account of the ongoing British occupation of Afghanistan and what happens if you refuse to fight.

Jailed for his opposition to the war, Glenton has gone on to become a prominent anti-imperialist activist. Endlessly quotable and full of dry, dark humour, Soldier Box is the perfect antidote to the Help For Heroes-style soldier worship so prevalent today.

Ian Sinclair

 

THEATRE

Shakespeare does the rounds every year but it's always great when a flawless rendition of one of the bard's great plays comes to town. This year it was the National Theatre's production of Othello that scored a bull's eye, aided in no small part by Adrian Lester's unbeatably drawn Othello and Rory Kinnear's model Machiavelli in Iago. It was so good all other Shakespeare productions paled in comparison, including a rather good David Tennant in the current RSC production of Richard II and the unlikely success of Jude Law as Henry V.

Outside Shakespeare-land it was refreshing to see Christopher Marlowe's Edward II finally get some stage time. Although its ballsy production condemned it to the love-hate category it was nevertheless one of the most memorable of the year, oddly utilising uber-modern production techniques for a medieval setting. It was a timely piece too considering Edward II's inferred homosexuality and today's Parliament getting all hot under the collective collar over gay marriage.

This year also seemed to be all about immersive theatre with a fair few productions cropping up striving to give audiences something a little different. The most anticipated being Punchdrunk's latest The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable. Unfortunately, with expectations exceedingly high following on from previous successes Faust and Masque Of The Red Death, it was a damp squib, partly due to the fact that it vastly overreached itself.

The advanced scale of the operation in a huge five-floor warehouse neighbouring Paddington station meant that most of the space was left abandoned and desolate for lack of actors.

But nobody can deny the trailblazing influence of Punchdrunk on other immersive theatre production companies and some interesting ones appeared this year at the Battersea Arts Centre. One that aimed to spook was Ring, which had audiences sitting in a blacked-out room with only their ears to rely on. Another was the more family-orientated The Good Neighbour. Best described as a cross between a ghost story, a Sherlock Holmes novel and a treasure hunt - all very promising indications of the myriad possibilities of theatre and where it's heading.

Will Stone

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