Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Dictator Novel

The recent death of Gabriel García Márquez is a huge loss to the literary world, especially Magic Realism. I owe my knowledge about this style to Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude which led me down a path of Magic Realism and the discovery of many other global authors. Even though Márquez is associated with Magic Realism, he was also a big part of the Dictator Novel. I first learned about the Dictator Novel genre when I read Augusto Roa Bastos' I Supreme as part of the 2011 Copa America Spotlight a few years back. Many references to Márquez's The General in His Labyrinth and The Autumn of the Patriarch appeared when discussing the roots of this genre in Central and South American literature. It is these two books that have been foremost in my mind since I heard of Márquez's passing.

The Dictator Novel is associated with Latin America given the number of dictatorships and generals that took power from the 1960's-70's but the genre can also apply to works about Africa. There are certainly similarities between Latin America and Africa in how some dictators rose to power and the ruthless methods they used to maintain their position. Yet, most of the official talk about this genre does not feature African literature or books about Africa.

Here are a few examples of books that highlight abuse of power in Africa and can be branched under The Dictator Novel, even though two of them are non-fiction.

1. Wizard of the Crow by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o;

Wizard of the Crow by Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o is pure magic realism in depicting the myth around an African ruler's hold on power. The book is set in a fictional country of Free Republic of Abruria but it incorporates elements that could apply to many African countries.

2. The Last King of Scotland by Giles Foden

Giles Foden's book meshes fact with fiction in depiction of Uganda's Idi Amin and is told from the perspective of a doctor.

3. The Emperor by Ryszard Kapuściński 

Ryszard Kapuściński's book about Haile Selassie's reign in Ethiopia is non-fiction but his beautiful writing paints such a vivid picture that most fiction authors fail to achieve.

4. In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in the Congo by Michela Wrong 

Like Kapuściński, Michela Wrong's writing about Africa is essential reading. Her debut book highlights Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire.

Saturday, April 26, 2014


Enemy (2013, Canada/Spain, Denis Villeneuve)

Enemy transports José Saramago’s novel The Double to a David Cronenberg landscape and enhances the material with references to Kafka, George Orwell and Alfred Hitchcock. If that sounds overpowering, then rest assured it is not. The references don’t dominate proceedings but are appropriately stitched in the screenplay and don’t draw attention to themselves.

The entire film is a mystery that is quite open to interpretation yet there are enough clues to guide one along the way. One prominent clue is the repeated symbol of a creature at different points in the film. The others are the graffiti on the walls and the content of the lecture given by Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal). Adam talks about dictatorship and that throughout history those in power kept the masses occupied with food and entertainment. The Romans he says used “bread and circuses”, words that mirror contemporary society and also the world depicted in the film. Adam comes to life when teaching his class but once he leaves the classroom, his life appears to follow a boring pattern. However, that pattern changes when a colleague recommends a locally produced movie for Adam to watch. Adam is captivated not by the movie but a few scenes where he notices an actor who looks just like him. It turns out that this actor Anthony lives in the same city. Adam manages to track him down and is shocked to see that this actor is an identical replica, right down to the voice. Adam wants to meet with Anthony and eventually convinces him via a series of phone calls but not before Anthony’s wife becomes suspicious of the phone calls. She manages to see Adam secretly from afar and is stunned to see the resemblance. But as she reveals to Anthony, there is a reason why Adam exists and puts the blame on Anthony. Her certainty about Adam’s existence furthers the mystery, something that is not fully solved out by the end.

The open nature of the ending has certainly fueled some of negative comments against this film, which is often the case for films that don’t explain everything. Also, some of the harsh criticism of Enemy is regarding the consequential nature of the plot where everything appears to be tied tightly together and follows one path after another. But that is not the case, especially since almost everyone in the film is a pawn while those in power hide in the shadows. Reading reviews about Saramago’s novel, it appears that the doppelgänger element is not fully explained either and instead the story is a recursive loop. Enemy is not a recursive loop but thanks to Javier Gullón and Denis Villeneuve’s screenplay, the film shifts into another genre altogether, thereby making it rich for interpretation. Nicolas Bolduc’s cinematography deserves a lot of credit as well because Toronto has never looked this sinister and terrifying. Also, shooting everything with grayish/brownish tints transforms the entire city into a futuristic world. The score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans (both worked on Martha Marcy May Marlene and Ruben Östlund’s Play) also adds to the nail-biting tension.

Enemy is one of the most exhilarating films I have seen in a cinema this year. It is a 2013 film but has only gotten an official Canadian theatrical release in 2014.