Monday, 19 December 2011

Vaclav Havel 1936 - 2011: For One Night Only

By Catriona Troth 

This is the story of a play which – for over twenty years – saw just one performance. A play written and rehearsed in secret. An act of defiance against a totalitarian state that almost (but not quite) succeeded. The story of The Beggar’s Opera, by Václav Havel, sometime president of the Czech Republic.

In 1968, when the Soviet tanks rolled into Prague and the process of so-called ‘normalisation’ began, Havel was already a successful playwright. But as the Communist Party reestablished its position of absolute power, he along with thousands of others became a ‘non-person’. His books were removed from library shelves, his plays could no longer be performed and his name effectively vanished from public life.

Havel wrote The Beggar’s Opera in 1968, but it was four years later that he and his friend Andrej Krob concocted a plan to stage it. No professional theatre dared touch it and any professional actor taking part would risk their career. So through a network of friends, they assembled an amateur company of teachers and students, white-collar workers and mechanics. Copies of the play were typed out on the tissue-thin paper used for samizdat publications and passed round in secret. Rehearsals took place in people’s homes – never in the same place twice to avoid arousing suspicion. They called themselves ‘The Theatre on the Move’.

Rehearsing the play was one thing; putting it on in public was another matter. After two years of working in secret, they approached a ‘House of Culture’ in an obscure suburb of Prague and requested permission to put on a play.

If the title, The Beggar’s Opera, sounds familiar, then that’s no coincidence. This is the same story of Macheath, Peachum and Lockett first written by John Gray in 18th Century England, then reimagined by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weil as The Threepenny Opera – and now given another twist in post-’68 Czechoslovakia. By calling it The Beggar’s Opera, they were able to persuade the authorities that this was simply a translation of an English classic, adapted slightly to remove the musical numbers. So effective had the state’s erasure of Havel’s name been that the company didn’t even hide his involvement: the minor officials in this out of the way suburb had never heard of him. Permission was granted, provided the performance was not advertised and no charge was made for admission.

Three hundred trusted friends, secretly invited to view the play, first had to find their way to the House of Culture in Horní Pŏcernice. Imagine a cross between a school auditorium and one of those characterless pubs plonked down in the middle of housing estates in the ‘70s. A place avoided by the locals because most of the entertainment provided was thinly disguised propaganda. An hour before the play began, half the audience were driving round in circles, not daring to ask for directions for fear of giving the game away to the authorities.

Just as the play was due to start, it seemed as if their worst fears had been realised. A man came out onto the stage. He lit a cigarette and stood there, blowing smoke rings out over the audience, his eyes travelling over their faces as if memorising them. The audience held its collective breath, fear catching in their throats. But it was a coup de théâtre: the man was Andrej Krob, Havel’s friend and the director of the play, reminding everyone – audience and actors alike – that they were always being watched.

But not that evening. No secret service men were in the audience or outside, taking note of car registrations. It seemed as if the whole venture had been a resounding success. The play had been put on, under the nose of the authorities, and they had got away with it. The set was disassembled and the troupe retired to the Little Bears pub in the centre of Prague to celebrate. A second performance was planned for a week later. But their downfall came, not from spies and traitors within Czechoslovakia, but from their allies in the West.

An eyewitness account of the play’s performance was broadcast on Radio Free Europe out of Zurich, and then published in Der Spiegel. The authorities were furious, but to some extent their hands were tied. The Warsaw Pact countries had just signed the Helsinki Accord which, among other things, guaranteed a certain degree of respect for human rights. They could not be seen to respond too ruthlessly to the single performance of an obscure play. So reprisals against the members of the Theatre on the Move had to be discreet. No one was thrown in gaol or sent away to a camp. But passports and driving licences were revoked. Jobs, including Krob’s, were mysteriously ‘restructured’ out of existence. Children of participants failed to find places at university. Even people who were merely suspected of participation suffered. Havel’s play was not performed again in the Czech Republic until after the Velvet Revolution in 1989.

So what was it about this play that so threatened the Czech regime? After all, the story is familiar enough. Macheath the gallant highwayman, seducing the daughters of a fence and a gaoler, playing off the fathers against each other and dodging an ignominious fate at the end of a rope. But in Havel’s hands, it becomes an indictment of the conditions of living under a totalitarian state.

Aynsley Moorhouse has compared the totalitarian state to Jeremy Bentham’s design of the Panopticon: the ideal prison where each prisoner is under constant observation from every angle. And this, Havel argued, creates a situation where the truth is constantly distorted, where every action is done for appearance only and nothing can be taken at face value. In his essay, ‘The Power of the Powerless’, Havel cites the example of the greengrocer who puts a sign in his window that reads ‘Workers of the World, Unite!’ He does it, not because he believes in international socialist revolution, but because he fears the consequences of not appearing to believe in it. And this constant need to dissemble, Havel believes, causes people to shrivel from within until they lose their humanity altogether.

In Havel’s play, every character appears to be constantly and eloquently justifying their own actions – but nothing they say can be trusted or taken at face value. When, in a final twist unique to Havel’s version, the policeman Lockett is ‘revealed’ to be a criminal who has taken control, first of the police force and now of the whole criminal underworld, the audience is left to guess that he, too, may be the victim of a giant self-deception.

The message of Havel’s writing, and what made him so dangerous, was not simply ‘stop believing what you are told’ (few people did) but ‘stop pretending to believe’. Act like human beings again. Take the sign out of your window and face the consequences of being honest.

Maybe it’s a lesson we could all learn.

• Václav Havel, The Beggar’s Opera, (translated by Paul Wilson), Cornell Press, 2001
• Paul Steiner: Introduction the The Beggar’s Opera, Cornell Press, 2001
• Václav Havel, ‘The Power of the Powerless’, 1978
• Aynsley Moorhouse, ‘Reframing the Theatrical Event: Václav Havel’s The Beggar’s Opera’, Transverse Journal, 2010

For One Night Only was originally published in the December 2011 edition of Words with JAM.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Christmas Podcast

Yes! Words with Jam has its first Christmas Podcast. But being WWJ, we couldn't just go for the traditional sleigh bells and tinsel approach. Instead we bring you Santa Never Made It, by Liza Perrat, read by the author.

Christmas Day, 1974.

Australians woke to the news that tropical cyclone Tracy had devastated the town of Darwin in Northern Territory. 71 people were dead and over 70% of Darwin's buildings destroyed.

But for 12 year old Tracy, the storm was to have quite different consequences.

Please go and have a listen - and if you enjoy it, don't forget to click the 'like' button before you leave!

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Paulo Coelho

An exclusive interview with JJ Marsh

About Paulo

Born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1947, Paulo Coelho chose his career early. As a teenager, he decided he would become a writer. And he did. But it took a while. Escaping a mental institution three times after being committed by his parents, dropping out of law school and becoming a travelling hippie, gaining respect as a songwriter, and being arrested and tortured by the military regime all came first.
He was forty years old when he experienced an epiphany on the Santiago de Compostela Trail, which led to his book, The Pilgrimage. The following year, 1988, he wrote The Alchemist, which has sold more than 65 million copies worldwide and has been translated into 71 languages. He has published 29 books, including The Devil and Miss Prym, Veronika Decides to Die, and Eleven Minutes, and sold over 100 millions copies of his work. His latest, Aleph, came out in English in September this year.
Paulo is an outspoken activist for peace and social justice, and also supports the free distribution of his work. He and his wife Christina split their time between Rio de Janeiro, and France.

Your books concern ordinary people, individuals who do or experience something extraordinary. How do you feel about the culture of celebrity?

There are two questions in one. As for the first part: everybody may experience the extraordinary at any given moment in life – if he or she knows where to go, and it paying attention to what is happening. St John illustrates the most frustrating facet of the human condition: our persistent desire for that which is unattainable that we carry in our soul. 

But the fact that you know your dreams is not enough. You have to think how to manifest your dreams and be brave enough to pay the price of it. You have to learn how to own your mistakes; otherwise your mistakes own you. I think that the only advice that I can give is this: nurture intuition instead of seeking for literary rules. Tell a story instead of trying to impress your peers with style and grammatical exercises.  It’s more important to keep on questioning than to find answers.

As for the second part of your question: I wrote an entire book about the culture of celebrity (The Winner Stands Alone). But if I have to summarize it, I would say: the trap of celebrity is when you start behaving that you are what people think you are. From this moment on, you are lost.

How far do your experiences as a songwriter  influence your writing?

By writing lyrics to songs, I learned how to be direct without being superficial.

Someone recently told me that Veronika Decides To Die should be compulsory reading for all teenagers. Do you agree?

No. The message in Veronika Decides To Die is that: dare to be different. You are unique, and you have to accept you as you are, instead of trying to repeat other people’s destinies or patterns. Insanity is to behave like someone that you are not. Normality is the capacity to express your feelings. From the moment that you don’t fear to share your heart, you are a free person.  You can speak the truth. And this is the beauty of truth: whether it is bad or good, it is liberating.

However, this must be a choice, and the book (either Veronika or any other book on this subject) must reach the reader when he/she is ready to face the challenges that come with freedom.

The meditations on the Seven Deadly Sins, to accompany The Witch of Portobello, references many different faiths and moral systems. How much can we learn from an open mind towards other beliefs?
People who accept that God is more than rules and commandments, and try to dwell into the adoration of beauty and passion, this feminine energy, are called “witches”. But in fact, this is a person that is capable of letting  intuition take hold of his/her actions, who communes with the environment, who isn’t afraid of facing challenges.

Recently I was reading Karen Armstrong’s book on the Prophet (Muhammad, Harper Collins), and there is a part that she mentions: “each recitation began with the invocation: In the name of Allah, the Compassionate (al-Rahman), and the Merciful (al-Rahim)…the divine names Al-Rahman and al-Rahim are not only grammatically feminine, but related etymologically to the word for womb.”

I am not an expert in Arabic etymology, but I believe that Mrs. Armstrong is. The Witch of Portobello  explores this Compassion and this Mercy, as I see from my perspective. I felt the need to question why society had tried to lock away the feminine side. The character of Athena, with her freedom and courage, was my way to tackle this subject and to unveil the shackles of dogma.

I think, that despite all the fanaticisms, we are seeing the beginning of an era where feminine values, such as generosity and tolerance, are surfacing again.

Which, in your view, is the worst of the Deadly Sins? Why?

Envy. I don’t think I need to elaborate.

Most writers try to protect their work being distributed for free. But I was delighted to discover you actively sought to share files with your readers via the Internet. Why?

In the former Soviet Union, in the late 1950s and 60s, many books that questioned the political system began to be circulated privately in mimeographed form. Their authors never earned a penny in royalties. On the contrary, they were persecuted, denounced in the official press, and sent into exile in the notorious Siberian gulags. Yet still they continued to write.

Why? Because they needed to share what they were feeling. From the Gospels to political manifestos, literature has allowed ideas to travel and even to change the world.

I have nothing against people earning money from their books; that’s how I make my living.
But look at what’s happening now: the publishing industry is trying to have laws brought in against ‘intellectual piracy’. Depending on the country, the ‘pirate’ – that is, the person disseminating art on the Internet – could end up in jail.

And how do I feel about this? As an author, I should be defending ‘intellectual property’, but I’m not. In 1999, when I was first published in Russia (with a print-run of 3,000), the country was suffering a severe paper shortage. By chance, I discovered a ‘pirate’ edition of The Alchemist and posted it on my web page. A year later, when the crisis was resolved, I sold 10,000 copies of the print edition. By 2002, I had sold a million copies in Russia, and I have now sold 12 million.

When I travelled across Russia by train, I met several people who told me that they had first discovered my work through the ‘pirated’ edition I posted on my website. Nowadays, I run a ‘Pirate Coelho’ website, giving links to any books of mine that are available on file-sharing sites. And my sales continue to grow – nearly 140 million. When you’ve eaten an orange, you have to go back to the shop to buy another. In that case, it makes sense to pay on the spot. With an object of art, you’re not buying paper, ink, paintbrush, canvas or musical notes, but the idea born out of a combination of those products.

‘Pirating’ can act as an introduction to an artist’s work. If you like his or her idea, then you will want to have it in your house; a good idea doesn’t need protection.

As a representative of the UN, involved with UNESCO campaigns including combatting violence against woman, a supporter of Amnesty International and the founder of your own Paulo Coelho Institute, do you see yourself as a political person?

One of the few bridges left intact today is the cultural one, and at the moment nobody is capable of understanding each other because there are a lot of prejudices going on around the world. When people talk about the clashes of civilizations, I think it is just an invention of the media. I don’t think there are any clashes. I may not understand the political system or economics, but I understand things through stories. And by extension, every artist is a political person.

As for the Paulo Coelho Institute: the social situation here in Brazil is complicated; the disparity between the rich and the poor is very big. The Brazilian government is powerless with regard to the social situation of Brazil. But I have to resist the temptation to name those responsible for it and apportion blame solely on our government. Politicians are concerned mostly only about special things and lose sight of their real tasks, especially their election promises. As a Brazilian, I am also responsible for the situation in my country. That’s why I try to support children in Rio de Janeiro with my Paulo Coelho Foundation. I cannot change or improve Brazil, but I can help the people in my surroundings.

You’re often quoted as saying you write with only one reader in mind – yourself. In Aleph, you take the reader with you on a very personal journey. How did that affect the writing of this book?

Writing is magic. Pure magic. A powerful moment, when I look into my soul, even if it’s only for ten seconds, and  I can have a glimpse of my dark and bright sides  Thoughts vibrate, thoughts transfer to my fingers.  I never in my life had this blank screen syndrome. All I need to do is to get rid of the notion of time.

And this is the central idea of Aleph. While writing it, I was describing an experience that took place four years ago, and understanding it for the first time. When I finished and published the book, the reader could understand that this magic may be manifested in anything we do in life.

What would be your English translation of the word saudades?

Portuguese speaking people used to be proud that this word has no translation. But I believe it has. It can be “to long for”, or in a specific case, to be “home sick”, etc. And to make it simpler, I would say: “to miss (something or someone)”.

Interviews often show more of the interviewer than the interviewee. What question(s) would you want to ask our readers, all of whom are writers?

Writing is a socially acceptable form of getting naked in public. Are you taking off your clothes?

Paulo Coelho - in his readers’ words ...

He relates to real life and to journeys. He relates to people ~ Eleven Minutes is a powerful and beautiful work. I felt the author understood me ~ He sends you on a journey to (re-)discover a certain facet of life. Sometimes he succeeds and sometimes he doesn't. But when he touches you, he does so deeply ~ You can align your own existence to his characters ~ His books are happy books. They’re easy to read but take much, much longer to think about ~ He speaks to people, he’s trying to answer some questions. He’s not place specific, so it’s applicable to all of us ~ His work is for thinkers. He makes you thoughtful ~ You can read his work at different times of your life and get different things from it ~ His work makes you rethink things, refocus on your aims and gives you confidence ~ It’s open to whatever you want it to be and I think that’s the global appeal of it. It means one thing to one person and something very different to another ~ I can talk about him to everyone. Older people, teenagers, my Mum and the bloke in the bookshop. Everyone likes to share Paulo ~ I always find a point in his books where I stop and say, that’s a really good point ~ If you have an open mind and are willing to believe in strange things, you’ll enjoy it ~ He’s a guide for the journey of life ~ I like all the characters and I want them to get where they want to go ~ I’m not spiritual or religious, but I got something important out of The Alchemist ~ He lifts me and gives me hope.

Strutting and Fretting Upon the Stage

Description and Scene Setting with Dan Holloway

You walk into the theatre, find your seat, climb over your fellow playgoers to get to it, settle in, open your naughty little bag of truffles, check your interval drinks order. The house lights go down; your heart begins to beat a little faster, the curtain rises and the stage is illuminated. You watch, initially in hope but with increasing disinterest, as stagehands manipulate sets and carry on props. Minutes drag by and there’s not an actor in sight. No-one speaks any lines, no music plays, though perhaps the lights are adjusted occasionally as the technicians test them for the forthcoming show. The show you’ve paid to see, but where is it? You’re already half way through your truffles and nothing has happened. At this rate, you’ll have fallen asleep under the influence of your interval gin long before it does. You tell yourself you’ll finish the truffles and then, unless something changes, you’ll leave.

The moral of this story? Whatever you do, avoid beginning your novel with a long passage of description.
To extend the theatrical metaphor perhaps a little further than I should, of course the scene must be set for the actors to perform, but the mechanics of this will be done largely in advance of the audience arriving and adjustments will be made discreetly, so as not to distract attention from the action of the play. The novelist should take the same approach. A novel is about character, conflict and resolution. Its stuff is that of emotional exposition and dramatic confrontation. Like plays, novels at their best offer catharsis. When all this is working, audiences scarcely notice the backdrop.

Of course, they would notice immediately if there was no backdrop at all, or if the scenery somehow failed to match the action being played out within it. The descriptive element of the novel is, therefore, as important as all its other components, but it must be managed with subtlety and discretion, so that readers only notice it when it has a contribution to make to the development of character, plot or theme. If, for example, your protagonist is a mountaineer or an interior decorator, their surroundings will be integral to their characterisation and, very possibly, to the development of your plot. If you are writing a murder mystery, detailed descriptions of the crime scene will be necessary to help both the police and the reader work out whodunit.

As a general rule, however, scene-setting should be unobtrusive. Just as, in life, our brains tend to notice and process only what they need in order for us to walk across a road without getting run over, or recognise a work colleague in a crowded canteen, or decide whether or not a particular outfit suits us, so, in fiction, you should be selective in what you describe. This will be conditioned by what will come to the notice of characters in given situations. If your heroine walks into a bar, for example, and stumbles across her husband snogging his secretary, she is unlikely to notice the bar’s decor, or the girl in the corner fixing her lipstick. She might, out of the corner of her eye, register the man in a lumberjack shirt whose gigantic paw is curled around a cocktail with an umbrella in it, because that is outside the range of conventional expectation. Mostly, however, she will be focused on the erring husband and secretary, and on the interior landscape this opens up inside her.

What do I mean by description? Obviously, it refers to what we see. We live, now, in an intensely visual culture. Images come at us from every angle, from advertising hoardings and the backs of cereal packets, from TV, video games, the cinema. Even flagship radio programmes are supported by visual imagery broadcast on websites. In the UK we are, apparently, the most photographed people in the world because of the amount of CCTV coverage of our public spaces. The world over, we use the cameras in our phones to record images of everything from baby’s first steps to the last breath of anti-government protestors in Syria or the victims of natural disasters in Haiti or Japan.

We are so overwhelmed by visual imagery that it is easy to forget that descriptive writing must include all the senses – hearing, smell, taste and touch as well as sight. Different senses take priority in different kinds of scenes, and may be used in counterpoint to one another to suggest the complexity of the sensual world. If, for example, you give a visual description of a rural idyll – a meadow full of wild flowers, cattle drinking at a stream, blue sky, birdsong – but then add the pungent aroma of a rotting sheep carcass, you immediately qualify the overall effect. You undermine your readers’ initial expectations and remind them that every paradise has its cost. If you are using a busy cityscape as a setting, you can achieve a powerfully surreal effect by leaving out sound altogether, loud noise being, possibly, the most prevalent sensual experience of this environment.

When you describe your settings, even in realist fiction, you manipulate your characters’ surroundings in order to achieve certain effects. This is perhaps best illustrated with reference to genre fiction. An exercise I often use with students is to ask them to write a brief scene – a couple’s car breaks down in the middle of nowhere – in the language of different genres. Scene-setting is one of the best and easiest ways of flagging up the different genres. Clearly, descriptions will differ greatly between a romance and a gothic horror, a police procedural and a western. Even though the setting may be identical, the demands of the genre call different aspects of it to prominence. In a romance, you might make use of senses of smell and touch as much as sight. In a horror, perhaps the sounds of hooting owls or creaking floorboards may be prioritised.

While it is important to remember that all the senses are available to you – and you may even invent new ones if you’re writing scifi or fantasy – do not try to use every one in every scene. The power of the opening of A La Recherche du Temps Perdu is its focus on a single detail – the smell of baking madeleines - which triggers the memories of which the rest of the work is composed.

It is also vital that your descriptive writing is truthful. Its terms cannot exceed what is available to you in your fictional world. If that world is contiguous with Planet Earth as we know it, the sea cannot be made of fresh water and human skin will always taste, at least partly, of salt. Mammals are warm and fish cold. There is but one moon and it isn’t purple. Truthfulness, however, extends deeper than this. Excellent descriptive writing reveals the essence of its subject, and does so in ways which make the reader experience it afresh, however mundane it may be.

In her novel, Music and Silence, when describing the quality of darkness in King Christian’s wine cellar, Rose Tremain calls it ‘darkness by design’, thus suggesting the element of control, the way in which the king’s authority extends even this far underground. Yet, in this scene, the king is hunting for a treasure which may or may not exist. The darkness is also designed to perpetrate a myth. In Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, the autistic child narrator’s unique voice is achieved partly by his unusual observations of the world around him. A policeman is described ‘as if he had two mice up his nose’. Traffic sounds ‘like surf on a beach.’ The imagery is vivid, its originality arresting, yet we know exactly what Christopher Boone means. His angle of vision is unusual, but remains recognisably human, of the human world.

This requires as much hard work as characterisation, plot or any of the other ‘big’ components of the novel. Choose the wrong simile or metaphor, or allow your description to escape the confines of the possible, and it will grate on readers and undermine their confidence in your storytelling.

Writing description is not easy. It requires discipline, in both the creation and the deployment. It must be truthful, and it must serve your characters and their plot with iron obedience.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Kimi's Secret: podcast

Our first YA podcast is the opening of Kimi's Secret by John Hudspith, read by JJ Marsh.

Wanna hear something really scary? When death comes knocking on your door there is really only one place to hide. Dragged screaming to the paranormal world of Heart, where ghosts are real, big cats prowl, aliens are greylians, monkeys rule, trolls troll, fairies are vermin, the Adepts always know best, magic is mojo and roasted dodo is the dish of the day; Kimi Nichols is handed a secret that must never be revealed. To do so would mean the end of mankind.

WARNING: contains imploding toads, gravity-defying clowns, liquefied brains, a sadistic dentist and a deformed taxidermist; great dollops of blood and bogies, half a million crows, and a giant with OCD.

Gothic horror meets supernatural sci-fi; Kimi’s Secret will leave you gagging, breathless and sleeping with the light on. Suitable for grinning little monsters aged 10 to 100.

To listen to the podcast, go to:

Or to find out more, look for Kimi's Secret on Facebook or you can buy the book from Amazon as a paperback or for Kindle.