A Swashbuckling Premise


The Fall, with Catinca Untaru

The Fall, with Catinca Untaru

The Fall by Indian movie director Tarsem Singh is one of those big-screen wonders that catapulted me into unexpected wonder. Its swashbuckling premise is that if you can trust in a paradigm where reality and fantasy are allies then anything can happen and brave little girls get to be Zorro.

The heroine Alexandria, a small girl who befriends a fallen stuntman (fallen in both the ways of movie horses that gallop away instead of standing still for an important second when the stunt actor is jumping off a railway bridge onto their back, and in the way of the hopeless romantic adulation of beautiful women who love the things money can buy and are hence shamelessly loose with their affections) is played by Rumanian child actress Catinca Untaru who is not only ferociously talented but utterly convincingly charming as she slips between reality and fantasy with the easy agility of an old pro (think Meryl Streep 10 years old).

Suffice it to say that I deeply, jealously, wished that I had invented her before they did. I resented that director and his whole film crew for having discovered this amazing child before I could breathe her form onto the page. As entertaining as the film was I considered Alexandria (or was it Catinca?) ill-used.

In my novel, the one I might have produced if someone else hadn’t dared to pluck her out of the ether, she would have reached full potential as a fully rounded character. This is the deceit of every writer – we believe that we can invent a world entirely from scratch and people it with such original, such charming, such fully breathing characters that we can trick our dear readers into not only suspending disbelief but believing this is a scene of reality that has never happened in life.

Catinca became the first Rumanian child to star in an international movie, winning the role from hundreds of hopeful child stars, after learning english in her native Bucharest from the age of four (indeed showing such an aptitude for it that she could do various accents). Catinca’s agent Andreea Tanasescu convinced Tarsem Singh to let her audition and she was apparently so good at slipping between fantasy and reality at the audition that the director adjusted all his ideas of who should play the role and selected her.

Her mother said that Catinca returned to being Catinca, leaving Alexandria behind on the film set, as soon as she arrived back in the hotel room. But I cannot help thinking that only Catinca could have created Alexandria, and in that sense her imagined interpreted Alexandria is quite singular and unique, a fruit picker’s daughter in 1920’s Los Angeles who exists as an avatar of Catinca Untary. Out of a movie called The Fall, has come a personality that DID NOT EXIST BEFORE.

It is possible, that’s all I’m saying.

P.S. I discover only today that Catinca Untaru nearly missed her plane to the film shoot because of difficulties getting a visa for South Africa (my home country) where The Fall was being filmed. I regard this as a strange coincidence. And so it is that the imagination, a rubber elastic band with its own tension, bounds back and forth between reality and fantasy with remarkable pliability.

Throwing away paper stars

A year ago I decided to start doing more reviews of the books I read, partly to gain exposure, and partly out of curiosity. How could I understand reviewers if I’d never walked in their shoes?

My favourite genre is literary fiction. The longer the better. I’m attracted to big fat books that will take forever to read and will end up giving me neck-pain from carrying them around. The more serious and enigmatic the better. The only books that made me laugh in a sustained belly ache fashion were P.G. Wodehouse‘s Jeeves books and Gerald Durrell‘s animal family books. John Irving has made me laugh in a different way; with Irving laughter is painful because it highlights what being truly human involves. I find most books which aim to be entertaining boring. I like them complex, devious, mysterious. I’m apt to wallow in all that chiaroscuro atmosphere like a kid in a mud pond. I guess you could say I’m a niche market voracious reader.

Today a voracious reader is called a rabid reader; that tells us something about a new generation of online consumers. In the small towns of my growing up years there were no bookshops, only libraries: plain covered volumes were extracted from plain shelves in plain local libraries and handed to plain librarians week after week, year after year.  Mostly we’d take a chance on the story title. A new author was an adventure waiting to unfold; their books wouldn’t be in the library if they couldn’t write. What mattered was what was inside, not the packaging. There was one thing though that was the same. We took those free books as our due. So why are we so surprised by the Internet model?

How does one shift one’s perspective to get away from a lifetime’s subjective absorption  and review the work of others in a fair and discriminating fashion? The life of a writer is a work-in-progress. Asking someone to review one’s novel or short story or poetry collection is an act of faith; the writer trusts that the reviewer takes their work seriously or why do the review?

gold star

If one assumes that the acknowledged masters of English Literature (such as Brontë, Faulkner, HemingwayShakespeare etc.) are what we (as serious writers and readers) aspire to, then the old literary favourites are logically the only 5’s there can be – the pinnacle of the star system.

De kinderjaren van Jezus_Coetzee

Where does that leave us with novels by Atwood, Coetzee, Irving, Mitchell, Oates, Ondaatje, Shriver and others who exhibit exemplary dedication, skill and that something ‘extra’ again and again? Where does that leave us with up-and-coming writers who with brilliance, ingenuity, word dexterity and bravado energetically pursue the prizes and take on the current generation of literary greats?

On a different, but no less confusing note, is it fair to compare a superbly composed novel (with all the gravitas of a major publishing house behind it) with an Indie novel which is rougher and rawer but is more accessible  (usually an e-book) and has sold more volumes  (although net sales worth may be far less than a traditionally published book).


The more reviews I undertook the more my head spun; it was an impossible task to do justice with stars; I was allowing myself to be seduced by a consumer-orientated star system which demanded simplistic judgements based on a highly personal read. Adding objective criteria didn’t help. I still couldn’t fathom how an Indie bestseller could be fairly evaluated on the same star chart and by the same criteria as Lionel Shriver‘s meticulously crafted We Need To Talk About Kevin or David Mitchell‘s monumental epic achievement Cloud Atlas.   I became increasingly convinced that review stars were false symbols which collapsed meaning.

Why isn’t the work of visual artists measured with stars? Because it would be a meaningless pointless exercise. Every painting exerts a unique force of push and pull on the observer. Or the work of a composer? Because it would be ridiculous, laughable to assign a concerto 3 stars as it is being performed on the stage. It is recognised for what it is; its own unique design and execution. Why should a piece of writing be any different?

It’s liberating to throw away a whole influential star system and try being a different kind of reviewer. It feels like the only thing to do if I want to be worthy of the writer’s act of faith.

***A different view on  reviews: “I’ve decided to stop calling these ‘reviews’. I’m not trying to be a professional reviewer…”.