The Clown and the Crook: Finding Trump in Shakespeare’s Othello

Photo by Gage Skidmore, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s hard not to see reflections of Donald Trump in art these days. Take the sudden climb up the bestseller lists for George Orwell and other dystopian authors, or the obvious comparisons between Trump and fellow dark lord Voldemort—even his White House screening of Finding Dory couldn’t pass without irony. For a man whose presidential campaign was as steeped in narcissism as it was devoid of morality, such ubiquity in popular culture must be a dream come true.

It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that I saw Trump again on the weekend, in a production of Othello by the Shakespeare arm of Bristol’s Tobacco Factory. He came of course in the form of the play’s antagonist, Iago, whose plot to destroy the eponymous Moor by tearing down his marriage to Desdemona makes him one of Shakespeare’s most malevolent villains.

The surface comparisons between Trump and Iago are easy to see: his blatant lies about Desdemona’s adultery, for example; or how he promises to return to Roderigo, a white Venetian, the wife he feels Othello, a black immigrant, has stolen from him. Like Game of Thrones‘ Littlefinger, he moves from character to character pretending to offer help, all the while manipulating them for his own ends instead. But what made this particular iteration so resonant was STF’s Mark Lockyer, whose portrayal of Iago, whether by design or coincidence, took those parallels to the current President to a much greater depth.

Mark Lockyer as Iago. Photo by Camilla Adams, via The Tobacco Factory.
Mark Lockyer as Iago. Photo by Camilla Adams, via The Tobacco Factory.

Lockyer’s character was full of charisma. Instead of his default portrayal as a two-faced conniver, Iago became something of an enigmatic anti-hero, drawing laughter and camaraderie from the audience as he divulged his schemes. Given his role in the play, the rapport he was able to create was downright sinister. His attacks on Othello’s marriage and mental state were received almost like the blows of a plucky, underdog gladiator—seated as we were in tiers surrounding the Tobacco Factory’s central stage, it was certainly difficult to suppress the feeling of being in a Roman arena, lapping up the bloody spectacle on the sands below.

Perhaps it would have been easier to see Iago for what he was, had his scenes not been lit invariably by a ring of hard white strip lights around the stage. Under their relentless glare, his intrigues were thrown into such a nauseating clarity that they seemed dreamlike, a little fuzzy at the edges, and that unreality gave Iago free rein to distort himself as necessary. To Roderigo he was the ever-helpful ally; to Othello and Cassio, he was crude but innocuous. On the rare occasion he let his guard slip and another character caught sight of his true self (as Desdemona does in Act Two), their criticisms are waved away—that’s just Honest Iago, they’re reminded, he’s only saying what we all wish we could.

Only to the audience is the full picture of Iago’s malice usually revealed, though on this occasion Lockyer does his very best to hide it even from them. He riffs on the dramatic irony of his character’s multiple false faces, using it to paint him with the broad, clownish strokes of many of Shakespeare’s other antagonists; in return for his seemingly humble self-awareness, Iago is allowed the confidence of those who should have all they need to condemn him. His soliloquies are punctuated with a set of all-too-familiar hand gestures—even the “Trump Pump” handshake makes an appearance—and Lockyer exaggerates his delivery until what Iago actually says gets lost beneath how he says it.

Only at the very end, as the stage lights illuminate the play’s bloody climax, does the audience realise that it too has been duped—that the buffoonery it thought was so genuine was just another layer of deception. In the tense quiet that hung about the final scene, it was hard to tell if the onlookers were more stunned by the full extent of Iago’s grand plan, or by his success in convincing them that he could never truly pull it off.

Photo by Gage Skidmore, via Wikimedia Commons.

It may well be that the resemblance I saw between Trump and Iago was nothing more than the influence of the times. But at the same time, I couldn’t help but compare the shock of Iago’s unmasking with that of Trump’s presidential election victory.

Like Iago, Trump’s changing faces had enabled him to pull off the impossible: he rose to prominence in a Republican party convinced that he was harmless; he won the support of millions convinced he was on his side; and, perhaps most importantly, he basked in the apathy of rivals convinced he was a candidate too ludicrous to oppose.

I can’t speak for those around me in the audience, but the Iago I saw in Bristol put me in mind of this piece by journalist Ron Rosenbaum. In comparing Donald Trump’s campaign trail image to that of Adolf Hitler in the 1920s, Rosenbaum says: “Hitler used the tactics of bluff masterfully, at times giving the impression of being a feckless Chaplinesque clown, at others a sleeping serpent, at others a trustworthy statesman.”

It was those same tactics of bluff that allowed Lockyer’s Iago to keep the danger he posed hidden from the rest of Othello‘s characters, just as they allowed the true potency of Donald Trump’s campaign to go unnoticed beneath the mockery of his legitimacy as a candidate. In laughing at the jester the audience was played for a fool—all that remains to be seen is whether that laughter will stop now the clown paint has been removed.

January in Books: His Bloody Project; The Essex Serpent; Voyage of the Basilisk

Ah, January—the month of new beginnings and fresh book goals. As well as starting a new Booktrotting chapter in Oceania, this month’s reading has been mostly about making a dent in my stack of literary Christmas presents, starting with bloody murder in the Scottish highlands, and a double helping of sea-serpents…


His Bloody Project, Graeme Macrae Burnet

A surprise and an underdog it may have been, but there’s no denying His Bloody Project deserved its place on the 2016 Man Booker shortlist. Billed by the blurb as a simple historical fiction about a murder and its following trial, what sets this novel apart is Burnet’s unique choice of form. Presenting the story as true from the outset, he tells it not via the usual prose but with a collection of “found” witness statements, court documents and the memoir of the accused—think The Blair Witch Project meets Law & Order: Scottish Victims Unit.

But whilst that certainly made for an interesting concept, I’m still not entirely sure it resulted in the best read. It just felt a little too choppy to get into: the section comprising murderer Roddy’s memoir was a classic piece of historical fiction, compelling as it mounted to its bloody climax and so vibrantly real in its portrayal of Victorian Highland life; but for all its strengths, that part felt too short, and the medical reports and trial coverage far too long. For now, I’m still in two minds about His Bloody Project, though perhaps in time I’ll appreciate it better.


The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry

But if I’m still unsure about His Bloody Project, I couldn’t be any more certain by comparison about The Essex Serpent. In the wake of the death of her abusive husband, the intrepid Cora Seabourne leaves behind the pity and mourning of London and rents a house in the tiny Essex parish of Aldwinter. Indulging her love of palaeontology amongst the fossil-rich clay of the Blackwater estuary, Cora’s dream of emulating Mary Anning soars when she learns that Aldwinter is haunted by a primordial sea-serpent…

I don’t think it would be too much to say that I really and truly fell for The Essex Serpent. The promise of a foggy riverbank and accompanying Gothic beastie would probably have been enough on its own to make this a good novel, but what makes it great is how Perry lets it swell to a level of complexity far beyond the mere terror of the Serpent. More than anything The Essex Serpent is a story about human relationships, about the different forms of love binding Cora’s circle of mismatched friends together; it’s also the story of England facing great change, as society’s old certainties are tested by feminism, socialism, science and reason, and people’s fears of this new age take shape as a serpent in the mist.

With everything The Essex Serpent sets out to be, it’s no wonder it’s won Sarah Perry so much praise over the last year—and that’s without even mentioning the beauty of Perry’s writing itself, and the way her voice flourishes into passages so sublime I couldn’t help but read them twice. It is simply an astounding novel, and I couldn’t recommend it enough.


Voyage of the Basilisk, Marie Brennan

And speaking of sea serpents, after finishing The Essex Serpent there really was no other way to follow it up than by setting off with Marie Brennan’s Isabella Camherst, dragon naturalist and the Indiana Jones of fantastic palaeontology—the spirit of Mary Anning would have it no other way.

Voyage of the Basilisk, the third instalment in Brennan’s Memoirs of Lady Trent series (of which part five is out this April), sees Isabella embark on a two-year voyage aboard the RSS Basilisk, searching for sea-serpents in the far-flung oceans of the world. It’s this use of location that is one of this series’ main strengths: although the content of each volume is more or less the same—dragons are sought, shenanigans ensue, discoveries are made—Brennan uses her knack for worldbuilding to set each novel in an environment that not only keeps the story feeling fresh, but is also completely tangible, with whole languages and cultures that seem fully at home in the worlds they inhabit. From frigid mountains to swamps and savannahs, and now to the seas of Yelang and Dajin, these books are an armchair explorer’s dream.

However, it must be said that whilst the locations of Voyage of the Basilisk were as good as ever, the pacing of the book itself was a little off compared to its predecessors. It’s hardly surprising, given the task of condensing two years at sea into just 365 pages, but with so many time cuts it all felt too episodic to really flow as one narrative—nevertheless, with the scenery rolling ever by, and to the sound of Isabella’s whip-cracking wit, this still proved to be a highly enjoyable slice of escapism.

Booktrotting in Kiribati: The Sex Lives of Cannibals

From the shores of Latin America, I’m setting sail for Oceania and the Pacific island chain of Kiribati, in the company of journalist J. Maarten Troost and his 2004 travelogue, The Sex Lives of Cannibals.


Now this was the South Pacific of my dreams. Stunning natural beauty. Challenges to test my mettle as a manly man. Sharks! Extreme heat! The pounding surf! I would thrive here, I felt.

Amateur adventurer and perennial idler, J. Maarten Troost is unsuited to the modern world of recruitment agencies and financial responsibility. So when his partner Sylvia is offered an NGO post on Tarawa Atoll, capital of the remote Republic of Kiribati, he jumps at the opportunity to uproot himself from Washington D.C. and set up shop at the very edge of the world.

But under the glare of the Equatorial sun, his romantic notions of white surf and sandy beaches quickly pass. As the realities of life in the Pacific hinterland set in, Troost learns that paradise can be a lot harder to stomach without the luxuries of modern sanitation, reliable utilities, and regular shipments of beer…

Kiribati by Vladimir Lysenko / CC-BY-SA
Kiribati, Vladimir Lysenko / CC-BY-SA

The Republic of Kiribati (pronounced Keer-ee-BAS) is an island chain comprising over thirty atolls and coral reefs, all dotted across the Equatorial Pacific roughly halfway between Australia and Canada. It has a permanent population of little over 100,000 and covers just 310 square miles in land area (about 1/300 of the UK), but with another million square miles of ocean joining it all together.

As you can imagine, Kiribati is not the kind of place to have made much of a mark on the global literary stage. When I started mapping out this Booktrotting project last summer, I knew that I would struggle to make many stops in Oceania’s myriad island nations, where a tradition of written literature has simply never had the right soil in which to grow.

So when I discovered The Sex Lives of Cannibals, J. Maarten Troost’s memoir of two years spent amongst the Kiribati islands, I knew it had to go on the list. Although Troost is the first to break my Booktrotting pattern of indigenous authors (being the American son of a Dutch-Czech family), I knew that was a compromise I would have to make if I wanted to visit this part of the world at all—a tinted window is, after all, better than no window at all.

And in a way, Troost’s perspective as a total outsider turned out to be an advantage rather than a limitation. Considering how little I knew of Kiribati before reading Sex Lives (besides its being a good answer to most Pointless geography questions), it helped to have my crash-course in life on Tarawa Atoll conducted by someone discovering things from the same lack of foundation as myself.

Maneaba in Babaroroa, Rafael Ávila Coya / CC-BY-SA
Maneaba in Babaroroa, Rafael Ávila Coya / CC-BY-SA

For a book which weighs in at under 300 pages, Troost leaves few stones unturned. Most of Sex Lives‘ twenty-something episodes centre on Troost’s attempts to navigate the many customs, conventions and taboos of the I-Kiribati, and the ways in which they differ from and are similar to his old American lifestyle. From the importance of communal dance to the proper way to sit in the village maneaba, and even how best to confront one’s noisy neighbours—if you were ever thinking of embarking on your own Kiribati adventure, you’d be hard pressed to find a more comprehensive and practical émigré’s guide to your new home than this.

But as fascinating as those details were, what really interested me about Troost’s Pacific sojourn was the picture of the I-Kiribati which emerged between the lines.

Before starting this book, I’d expected the biggest of Troost’s difficulties on Tarawa to be in earning the trust of the cautious, conservative locals. You can hardly blame me: having lived my whole life on the British Isles, it’s difficult to shake the assumption that islanders the world over share our inherent national resistance to change and fear of “outsiders”.

But although the I-Kiribati have and are happy with their way of doing things, the locals in this book showed none of the insularity I was anticipating. As well as Troost and his partner Sylvia, the background of Sex Lives was littered with immigrants of all sorts—doctors and aid workers, government advisors, wanderers laying down roots—and, to hear Troost tell of it, all were as welcome as the next.

You might even remember the bizarre story from the late ’90s of Danny Wilson, the Northampton man who wrote to the President of Kiribati applying to be his nation’s first Poet Laureate. Expecting his request to be laughed straight into the bin, Wilson instead found himself invited out to Kiribati, received by the President himself, and given a hut overlooking the Tarawa lagoon in which to practice his art. And although the President eventually asked Wilson to leave Kiribati, their disagreement only came after the global media attention surrounding Wilson’s appointment (not to mention Wilson’s drunkenness and lack of poetic output) became too much for the I-Kiribati’s liking—had that not been the case, it’s easy to imagine the Poet Laureate would have been welcome on Tarawa as long he liked.

Air Kiribati Harbin Y-12 at Tabiteuea North Airport, Steve Bolton / CC-BY
Air Kiribati Harbin Y-12 at Tabiteuea North Airport, Steve Bolton / CC-BY

Of course, it’s all too possible that Troost may have glossed over any underlying tensions between the I-Kiribati and their foreign neighbours, but nonetheless the relaxed hospitality of Tarawa Atoll felt like a rare fresh breeze in our current climate. It’ll be interesting to see if that is a recurring theme in my following Oceania reads, or if Kiribati’s far-flung location makes its people uniquely amenable to any and all who come wandering through.

Either way, I’ll find out soon enough as I leave Tarawa Atoll and head both southwards and back in time, to the Gold Rush-era New Zealand of Eleanor Catton’s 2013 Man Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries.

Booktrotting Log: So Long, South America

At last; after four months and five novels, the first leg of my Booktrotting World Tour has come to end on the shores of Argentina. Since September I’ve run with gangland drug barons in Jamaica, cooked in a magic kitchen in Mexico, lived under the cloud of civil war in Colombia, prowled with guerrilla fighters along Brazil’s Araguaia River, and learnt what it is to grow up in an impoverished Argentine village.

Willem Jansz. Blaeu, 1630
Willem Jansz. Blaeu, 1630

Starting my journey in Latin America was a bit of a happy accident. Had I not already been partway through Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings when I decided to undertake this project, I probably would have started on more familiar European or US territory. And even then, once I finished with Jamaica I was still planning on hopping as and where I liked between countries, until I thought there might be a more cohesive bigger picture to be seen if I moved logically through each continent, as if this were a real globetrotting road trip.

But although I’d never originally planned to move southwards from Jamaica to Argentina, I’m glad I did so in the end. For starters, it meant beginning with a whole list of books and authors I’d never heard of before, and from countries I knew next to nothing about, which is of course what this project is all about.

But I also noticed pretty quickly that my hunch about the bigger picture was rather spot on. Spread out and on their own, these five novels would still have provided an interesting new perspective on their authors’ home countries, but together they also form a very consistent and very revealing picture of Latin America as a whole.

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Diego Gutiérrez, 1562

One of the most obvious themes to keep emerging from these novels was violence. Whether it came in the form of revolutionary- or civil-war, bloody gangland violence, or smaller but equally-potent episodes of domestic cruelty, violence has been one of my most constant travel companions on the road through Latin America.

That wasn’t something I was expecting when I went into this—I knew Marlon James had quite the reputation as a bloodthirsty author and that Evelio Rosero’s The Armies would inevitably feature Colombia’s ongoing civil war on centre stage, but as for the others I had no idea they would be so similar in that regard.

But even more surprising for me was how this superficial theme of violence was tied up with the idea of identity and change.

Whether by an act of providence or by sheer dumb luck, the five books I chose for this particular region each centre on an episode of historic change or upheaval for their respective countries. They show Marlon James’ Jamaica caught in the crossfire between two opposing political fronts; revolution in Laura Esquivel’s Mexico and Adriana Lisboa’s Brazil; Evelio Rosero’s Colombia losing itself in the shadow of civil war; and finally, in Manuel Puig’s Argentina, they show traditional society being shaken to its core, in the years prior to the ousting of Juan Perón in the Revolución Libertadora.revolucionarios_tabasquen%cc%83os

For each one of these periods of change, conflict is almost an integral part, either because of the nature of revolution or because such events are so inflammatory. It’s hard to tell sometimes whether the violence is a means for change or just a symptom of it. Rosero’s The Armies seemed the only exception—in that violence itself through the Colombian Conflict was the thing that needed changing—although it still shared with its peers the idea that the people needed to be stirred up and inflamed if they were going to make any difference.

And this also filters down to the smaller questions of identity in these novels, the personal journeys undertaken by the characters. Again and again, violence, tragedy and hardship seem to be the catalysts needed to set characters in motion—Tita in Like Water for Chocolate and Toto in Betrayed by Rita Hayworth are both motivated by the oppression of their families and tradition; Crow Blue‘s Vanja only goes in search of her father after the sudden death of her mother; and for Ismail in The Armies, his sense of self begins to unravel when his town is attacked and his wife is kidnapped by paramilitaries.

But thinking about it with a little hindsight, I shouldn’t have been too surprised to see conflict playing such a role in both national politics and individual lives. After all, much of the Latin America we know today was forged by conflict, thanks to the good Christian missions of sixteenth century conquistadors like Cortés and Pizarro; and when the bloody conquest of an indigenous people forms such a key foundation in a region’s past, it’s almost inevitable that violence and its capacity to bring change will endure in the national psyche. You don’t even have to add in the volatile nature of the pre-conquest tribal societies, or the numerous wars that have scarred the continent since, to wonder why bloodshed doesn’t feature even more than it already does in Latin American literature.

Pedro Lira, Fudacion de Santiago, 1888
Fudación de Santiago, Pedro Lira, 1888

In fact, it’s a little annoying that I’ve still got five more continents to Booktrot through—I’ve enjoyed this first portion so much, I’d happily spend the rest of the year reading Latin American literature and exploring further the links between violence, identity and change.

But even though I’m continuing on to Oceania now, I’ve got a few Latin American books to keep me going on the side. Obviously, Gabriel García Márquez is going to be my next port of call in Colombia, and I’m itching to have a look at Near to the Wild Heart by Clarice Lispector, who has been promisingly described to me as Brazil’s answer to Virginia Woolf. And of course, there are still nine South American countries I haven’t touched on this trip, so I shall have to dip into each of them before long—with that in mind, I guess I best get a move on.

New Year’s Reading List

New year, new books: now there’s a resolution I can get behind. In my opinion, there’s no finer way to kick-start the year than by getting your teeth into a new book, whether that means taking a chance on an author you’ve never heard of or knocking a few of those Christmas gifts and holiday sale bargains off the to-be-read shelf.

With all the new beginnings in the air, I also like to spend some time on the approach to spring tackling some of those books I feel I should have read already, the Steinbeck and the Nabokov and the D. H. Lawrence—those books I buy from charity shops because they look all literary, but somehow never get round to reading at the time. Last year it was the time for To the Lighthouse and Fahrenheit 451, but I think with the way things are looking for the foreseeable future, it might be a good idea to make my reading list a little more dystopian this year…


The Sellout, Paul Beatty

Last year it took me pretty much forever to get round to reading the 2015 Man Booker winner, A Brief History of Seven Killings, so this year I’m determined not to be so sluggish with Paul Beatty’s 2016 winner The Sellout. Yes, that does mean giving it quite the bump to the top of my 80-strong to-read list—but given its satirical look at race relations in the US, and with many Americans currently re-evaluating whether racism is really as bad as everyone says (yeah, it really is), there doesn’t seem to be any more fitting time than the present to make myself acquainted with The Sellout.


img_3230His Bloody Project, Graeme Macrae Burnet

Another to-be-read from last year’s Man Booker shortlist, with all the praise Graeme Macrae Burnet’s fictional murder case study has garnered I could hardly say no to giving it a spin—not to mention my love of all things Scottish wouldn’t let me pass it up if I tried.


img_32351984, George Orwell

1984 is one of those books mentioned above that caught my eye in a second-hand shop, but once brought home was consigned to wait patiently at the tail end of my to-be-reads. But, as with The Sellout, the zeitgeist is pointing me towards Orwell’s Big Brother classic; after all, we probably haven’t got much time before 1984 stops being fiction and becomes enshrined as legitimate prophecy.


img_3234The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry

One of the many books to arrive mysteriously in my stocking on Christmas morning, I fell in love with The Essex Serpent‘s thistly cover and dreamlike prologue so quickly I actually started reading it the minute I unwrapped it. Now two weeks and 150 pages in, this already looks like a pretty solid nominee for my book of the year.


img_3237Stone of Farewell, Tad Williams

I read the first volume of Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series, The Dragonbone Chair, back at the end of last summer, and after taking a few detours through Middle-Earth and Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, I feel it’s about time I got back to Williams’ sword-and-sorcery epics. I’m hoping the series does something to pick up in Stone of Farewell: The Dragonbone Chair was plenty enjoyable but got a bit stale towards the end, and it’ll be a shame if Stone does nothing more than pick up where Chair fizzled out.

2016 in Books: Challenges; Booktrotting; New Discoveries

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If there’s any single word to describe my 2016 reading list, it has to be “challenge”. Starting off the year with Leo Tolstoy’s infamous War and Peace I felt like I had laid down the gauntlet to myself, to really push the borders of my literary comfort zone; and naturally, with an act like Tolstoy’s to follow, I could hardly resist picking for my “Big Reads” of 2016 some of the most fiendish and formidable giants of literature – namely, Moby DickDon QuixoteAnna Karenina and Ulysses.

img_2967I must admit, part of the attraction of taking on this reading list was in the chance to smugly say I’ve read the books no one else would touch. But it was also about testing my resolve when it came to daunting tasks easily put aside – after all, if I can work through even the most constipated parts of Moby Dick, everything else should be gravy. Surprisingly, given my tendency to inhale literature, my only experience with books of this size has come from either epic fantasy or Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, so to have taken on these five and come out smiling is a big achievement. And, like with most challenges, now it’s over it’s hard to see why it looked so scary in the first place.

I was initially planning on carrying on this “Big Reads” mantra through 2017, perhaps with Les Misérables or even Finnegans Wake, but as much as I’ve enjoyed the challenge this year, I’m feeling pretty pooped now I’ve come to the end. In 4,051 pages, I’ve fought Napoleon, hunted the White Whale, jousted my way across Spain, scandalised Russian high society, and embarked upon the mother of all Dublin pub crawls – I think I ought to take a breather before jumping into the French Revolution or going another round with James Joyce.


img_2970Of course, I can’t talk about literary challenges without mentioning the start of my Booktrotting World Tour earlier this year. I’m definitely starting to feel the full scope of this project now – after five months of reading and writing, I’m still only just wrapping up the first leg in Latin America – but as we continue globally down the slope of ignorance and isolationism, this personal literary journey of mine feels even more important than it did in the summer.

img_2403So far, the hardest part of Booktrotting has not been reading and writing about the books themselves, but in finding them to begin with. I always said when I started that I didn’t want to settle for the “obvious” reads – no Murakami or García Márquez – but the problem with delving into obscurity is that it can make finding affordable, in-print translations a total nightmare.

Still, in a way that’s largely the point of all this: I want to be pushed into reading the books and authors you won’t stumble across on a Tesco bestsellers shelf, and if possible help others find them too. And in hindsight, I’m glad I made that decision, as it’s led to some incredible discoveries so far – not least of which my Colombian read, Evelio Rosero’s The Armies, which has to rival War and Peace for my book of the year.


img_2963Speaking of discoveries, I’ve also been taking more chances on contemporary books this year rather than just sticking to the classics I knew to be good. Anna North’s The Life and Death of Sophie Stark was easily one of my books of the summer, and Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen was the perfect wintry counterpart. And though not entirely new to me, the Finnish sci-fi writer Emmi Itäranta really hooked me with her sophomore novel The City of Woven Streets, and will definitely be someone I look out for in the future.

img_2959I didn’t read as many non-fiction books as I’d planned to this year (although I did read plenty of non-fiction in the sense of taking a genuine interest in the news and politics for once). Of the small number I did get round to reading, I particularly enjoyed Neil Oliver’s A History of Ancient Britain – archaeology and prehistory has somehow never managed to excite me before, but Oliver gets so enthused bringing it all to life it’s impossible not to get swept up with him.

img_2940But where my non-fiction target didn’t work out, I did end up reading a lot more graphic novels than expected, thanks to the happy combination of a sick day and a Sky 1 Supergirl marathon reviving my childhood love of comic books. At the moment, I’m just getting into the Kamala Khan Ms Marvel series and loving every page of it – but more on that here. I’d really love to explore what graphic novels can do outside of the superhero remit in the future, so if you have any recommendations on that front please do hit me up.

Booktrotting in Argentina: Betrayed by Rita Hayworth

Moving south from Adriana Lisboa’s border-hopping road-trip Crow Blue, my Booktrotting journey comes to the last stop on its Latin American leg – Argentina, home of Manuel Puig’s first novel, Betrayed by Rita Hayworth.img_3205-1


I would be satisfied with just seeing Mar del Plata, since I never saw the sea. But I think…I would simply like to stay here in Vallejos and meet a good man. I speak of a simple man…who works long hours in silence, without complaint, for my children.

With each of the books on the Latin American leg of my Booktrotting tour, a common theme has been in their presenting a unique challenge on reading: A Brief History of Seven Killings had its unflinching prose and Jamaican patois; Like Water for Chocolate, its blurred lines between reality and fantasy; The Armies was a sheer emotional wrench throughout; and Crow Blue kept time-hopping between its two adjacent plots.

And yet even with such an act to follow, Manuel Puig’s Betrayed by Rita Hayworth still manages to somehow top the lot.

Content-wise, the novel is pretty basic. There’s no real story to speak of, despite the title hinting at a cinematic love affair: Puig pretty much contents himself with just exploring the everyday lives of various interconnected characters, describing their mundanities at home and work and the fantasies they live out through the cinema, dusting them all over with themes of masculinity, patriarchy, entrapment and escape – pretty familiar territory for anyone who’s read any James Joyce or Virginia Woolf.

But right from the first page, Rita Hayworth is anything but simple. It begins with two chapters of pure dialogue – no description, no narrative, not even any attributions to point out which character is saying what – before then plunging into a succession of single-paragraph consciousness streams belonging to the residents of the fictional rural village Vallejos.scenery_at_purmamarca_-_independence_memorial_-_argentina

There’s no sense denying that at first I was completely bamboozled. For the opening two chapters at least I had to keep a pen handy, to jot down in the margin any notes as to who was speaking or what was going on.

But if my experience of reading the likes of Ulysses this year has taught me anything, it’s that with a book like this you sometimes have to put your head down and go for it, then go back and close-read the details once you’ve got the basic idea in place. And once I’d accepted that I’d need to take a little care going forward, I found it much more enjoyable – not quite the “screamingly funny masterpiece” promised by the cover testimonial, but at least not the indecipherable mess I first feared it was.

The picture that Manuel Puig paints of Argentina with this novel is an incredibly bleak one. Every one of his characters is oppressed by someone or something else: wives by their husbands, children by their parents and teachers, the aspirational by their poverty. Some of them are oppressed by nothing more than their own low ambitions, and the safety of staying right where they’ve always been. To relieve themselves they escape to the movies and pretend they are waltzing in The Great Ziegfeld or playing love scenes with Norma Shearer.

And although “mundanely oppressive” might not be quite the message Argentina’s Minister of Tourism would like to put out, it does give quite the appreciation of the kinds of everyday pressures the people of Argentina faced in the 1940s. As I mentioned above, masculinity and traditional patriarchy form a large part of the themes of Rita Hayworth: the young child Toto, for example – the closest thing this novel has to a protagonist – endures constant bullying from both his father and his peers for his close relationship with his mother, and for his aptitude for creative rather than physical tasks. I did often wonder while reading if Puig had been influenced by James Joyce in any way, or if it was just a happy coincidence that Rita Hayworth is so reminiscent of Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist.

casa-rosada-argentinaOne of the things I did notice with this novel was the lack of conflict. Conflict has had a consistent presence throughout each of my four previous Latin American books, either via actual warfare like in The Armies and Crow Blue, or the isolated gangland violence of Seven Killings – and so, given Betrayed by Rita Hayworth‘s setting during the early 1940s and Argentina’s unofficial links with Nazi Germany, I was expecting the Second World War to play a considerable part in the story, even though Argentina officially remained neutral until it finally renounced its Axis links and sided with the Allies in March 1945.

But instead, the only mention of the war was an off-hand comment about how “the Russians betrayed Hitler”. I’d quite like to read more Argentine fiction set during the ’40s to see whether this is a common attitude to Argentina’s involvement in the war; I do wonder if Puig, writing in the late 1960s, reflected a wider effort in Argentina to downplay the country’s links to the Axis powers, particularly the reputation it had post-war as a haven for Nazis fleeing the Nuremberg trials. That the sole mention of Hitler and the Nazis comes from the monologue of Héctor, who is made out to be somewhat crude and uneducated compared to the other characters, suggests that Puig isn’t making an outright denial of Argentine sympathy for Nazi Germany, but does want to make it clear that such feelings were only really held by an uncultured minority.


My next Booktrotting stop is a quick 10,000 km trip across the Pacific to the Oceania island nation of Kiribati, in the company of J. Maarten Troost’s The Sex Lives of Cannibals.