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sábado, 1 de septiembre de 2012

Literary Review: Homage to Catalonia (1936), by George Orwell

I have always liked George Orwell books (who hasn’t, really?), having read long time ago 1984 and Animal Farm. But after reading recently two of his less known novels, Burmese Days and Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell is in a whole new level for me.

I don't remember having read so many novels of one writer and having liked (I mean, really liked), all of them. It is also quite meaningful that I read them throughout quite a long period of time, around ten years, the first two when I was in my teens.

After reading Homage to Catalonia I have developed a profound respect for George Orwell, both as a writer but even more as a person. Throughout the book I have been amazed by his intelligence, sincerity and straightforwardness.

In Homage to Catalonia George Orwell often expresses his personal opinions on politics. What I like most is that he always speaks with the utmost sincerity, not hesitating to say he was too naive at the time. Just after arriving in Spain at the beginning of the war (1936) to fight for the Republican side, he admits he had this idealized idea of socialism and the proletarian revolution. Although more than fighting for socialism the reason why he was willing to risk his life in a war was to fight against fascism, an ideology that was getting strong all over Europe.

Things were not as simple at it may appear at first sight. Over time the whole conflict has been simplified into a flight between Communism and Fascism. I am not going to deepen into Communist theory here, but let’s just say that many people at that time in Europe saw in Communism a way to fight many of the social inequalities of the time, and fighting Franco in Spain seemed like an ideal way to start changing things. Orwell puts it this way:

“The thing that happened in Spain was, in fact, not merely a civil war, but the beginning of a revolution. It is this fact that the anti-Fascist press outside Spain has made it its special business to obscure. The issue has been narrowed down to ´Fascism versus democracy´ and the revolutionary aspect concealed as much as possible.”

Here Orwell is very critic with the British press. While they supported Spanish government in its struggle to fight fascism, Orwell explains how they were also afraid that the revolutionary aspect could propagate to Britain and threaten the rich social classes.

Orwell also explains how, during the first months of the war, Catalonia (in the Republican side) was a socialist dream come true. There were no social classes, people called each other comrades and stopped using “usted” (Spanish personal pronoun equivalent in English to “you” but used when you want to show respect to the person you are talking to), etc. But things didn’t last long that way, and internal fights started appearing inside the Republican supporters.

“Of course such a state of affairs could not last. It was simply a temporary and local phase in an enormous game that is being played over the whole surface of the earth. But it lasted long enough to have its effect upon anyone who experienced it. However much one cursed at the time one realized afterwards that one had been in contact with something strange and valuable. One had been in a community where hope was more normal than apathy and cynicism, where the world ´comrade´ stood for comradeship and not, as in most countries, for humbug.”

The Spanish Republican Army was supported by Russia, with Stalin as a head of the country. Stalin didn’t like Trotskyists, and so they forced Spanish Republicans to make things difficult for them. Orwell was himself a Trotskyist, and he tells how all of a sudden they would be hunted down and put in jail for absolutely no reason, under the pretext that they were spies of the Germans. Orwell tells us how some of his friends (there were quite a few foreigners fighting in the Spanish war) were put in jail just after having risked their lives at the front. He himself had to hide in Barcelona for few days before he could make it back to England. What I loved most about Orwell is his sincerity when telling how stupid he was for not having realized earlier how things would turn out. All over the book this sincerity prevails. It is easy to empathize with the writer, since you can see he is a humble guy telling things how he felt them as that time, without excuses, without bullshit.

To me, as a Spanish, it has also been interesting to read about Orwell’s opinions on Spaniards. In some of his quotes you can clearly see the honesty I was talking about before.

“Even more in Spain than elsewhere it seemed to be the tradition to stuff sick people with heavy food. At Lérida the meals were terrific. Breakfast, at about six in the morning, consisted of soup, an omelet, stew, bread, white wine, and coffee, and lunch was even larger-this at a time when most of the civil population was seriously underfed. Spaniards seem not to recognize such a thing as a light diet. They give the same food to sick people as to well ones-always the same rich, greasy cookery, with everything sodden in olive oil.”

I find it amazing that I can agree with what someone said seventy years ago. I find the quote below especially true and funny:

“One morning it was announced that the men in my ward were to be sent down to Barcelona today. I managed to send a wire to my wife, telling her that I was coming, and presently they packed us into buses and took us down to the station. It was only when the train was actually starting that the hospital orderly who travelled with us casually let fall that we were not going to Barcelona after all, but to Tarragona. I suppose the engine-driver had changed his mind. ´Just like Spain!´ I thought. But it was very Spanish, too, that they agreed to hold up the train while I sent another wire, and more Spanish still that the wire never got there."

But not everything was criticism. Orwell had a great opinion on the character of Spanish people. Here he praises their solidarity:

“A Spaniard’s generosity, in the ordinary sense of the word, is at times almost embarrassing. If you ask him for a cigarette he will force the whole packet upon you. And beyond this there is generosity in a deeper sense, a real largeness of spirit, which I have met with again and again in the most unpromising circumstances.”

He even goes as far as to pointing out that, even if Fascism would win in Spain, it would not be as bas as other Fascisms in Europe:

“I have the most evil memories of Spain, but I have very few bad memories of Spaniards. I only twice remember even being seriously angry with a Spaniard, and on each occasion, when I look back, I believe I was in the wrong myself. They have, there is no doubt, a generosity, a species of nobility, that do not really belong to the twentieth century. It is this that makes one hope that in Spain even Fascism may take a comparatively loose and bearable form.”

Interestingly, Spanish Fascism was the longest prevailing in Europe, after winning a war that lasted for three years. So in a sense the effort of George Orwell was in vain. He risked his life (was almost shot death in the neck) and lost many friends, but it was not the Fascists who caused most of those deaths, but the police of the Republic, the side he was fighting for. That would surely have left an everlasting impression on anyone. Yet Orwell finishes the book by saying that he left Spain with “more belief on the decency of human beings”.


domingo, 20 de mayo de 2012

Burmese Days, George Orwell (1934)

I read this novel last year, but before I completely forget about it I want to write a small review.

The story of this book is particularly relevant to me, since it talks about the life of an expatriate in Asia. It warns about the dangers of colonialism in a society, in Burma, where British are the ruling class and feel superior to the natives. Among them we find the protagonist of the book, John Flory. John often rejects the behavior of his fellow countrymen, plus he has blended much better in the life of Burma than most of his colleagues. But poor John has also fallen into many of the vices of the other expatriates, such as alcoholism, and since he has to cooperate with them he never really makes a real stand.

The book was very enlightening to me in some aspects. For example, it showed how difficult it is for European expatriates to blend completely into the culture of an Asian country. John, our protagonist, is fluent in Burmese, his best friend is Burmese, and his lover is also from Burma. But regardless of how long he spends in Burma and how hard he tries to integrate he will always be a British expatriate.

But of course the situation in Burma at that time (1920´s) and that of nowadays can’t be compared. Burma has been colonized by the British, and the novel is set at a time where very few people would deny the moral superiority of European countries over "third world countries". Even many of the natives in Burma don’t deny it. And actually the "bad guy" of the novel is not a British but a Burmese who, in order to be accepted in the exclusive (drinking) club of the British, designs a cruel scheme by which he means to ruin the life of many of his fellow countrymen. But for him that is not a big deal, since the goal is a great one, attain the status of the British.

Besides the main plot there is the relationship between John Flory and Elizabeth, a British girl who has just arrived from Europe in order to live with her uncle an aunt in Burma. John falls in love with her right away, since he sees in her all the qualities absent in his corrupted expatriate friends. However, Elizabeth is described to the reader as a simple minded girl, extremely materialistic and ignorant about the world and with no desires to change her situation. John, very familiar with the country of Burma and its people, tries to teach her everything he has learned, but she has no interest in all that, being her main motivation going hunting and dressing nice clothes, always keeping as far away as possible from the natives. But John, although often disappointed by this behavior, can’t really see her the despicable way she is described to the reader.

Finally, it is interesting to see the role that Chinese characters play in this book. While they are considered as low-class people by most of the British, John considers them at a superior level than the Burmese, and talks about them as a country with a great culture and traditions.

Burmese Days is a great description about the country of Burma under British regime, and it is a must read for expatriates from western countries living in Asia. It is a very realistic account of what life in Burma must have been like (George Orwell spent five years there as a police officer, from 1922 to 1927). As in 1984, the general tone of the book is rather pessimistic, being no heroes in the book, but ordinary people, many of them more evil than good, others trying to make the most of a reality that should not have been created in the first place.

miércoles, 4 de abril de 2012

My favourite hobby (1)

I started playing tennis when I was 9. It was summer, and my mother´s best friend and my own decided that we had to do some sport. First they thought of the gym, and after that, I don´t know how, my friend´s mother found a tennis club near our house.

Sure, why not, my friend and I thought. I had played tennis when I was 4 and apparently I hated it (don´t even remember), so I still had a racket (wood made, one of those Bjorn Borg used 40 years ago, which I used during my first drill session in order to determine our level. My friend did better than me, but I thought it was my racket´s fault, so after one week playing I bought a new one. After that things started going better. My technique wasn´t the best, but a mix of competitiveness (I hated losing so much) and being quite athletic (I usually won all the really long matches) were enough to advance levels at a decent path and leave my friend behind.

I remember very well my first two matches. The first one I lost 6-4. I think I didn´t get too angry then (losing my cool on the court has made me break a couple of rackets). The second I lost 10-8. Still, few weeks after that I was at a higher level (there were 14 at the time) than both players. After a few months I was playing with the best of the club. I loved both training and competition. But soon after I started playing competitively most of the best players left the club. There were some issues in a couple of tournaments involving parents (who oftentimes took it more seriously than their kids), and so our trainer decided he didn´t want our club to be present in any more tournaments. It was a letdown for me and I thought about going to another club. But I wasn´t that good, and at the time I started having problems at my wrist, and because there was no club at a decent distance from home I just stayed there playing for fun and winning quite frequently some of the internal tournaments.

Once I started attending university the tendinitis in my wrist was giving me a lot of trouble. I visited the doctor many times, but the creams I was told to use didn´t do me any good. I remember my trainer telling me to just ignore the pain and apply ice to the wrist after playing, but it was very painful and I thought he was crazy anyways (my trainer was one of a kind), so there were many months where I didn´t play at all or where I had to change my backhand, by far my best shot, from two handed to one handed, and it really sucked (I said at the beginning I´ve never been the most skillful of players).

I remember being really frustrated during those years. My backhand was subject to my wrist problems (I forgot to mention I had the tendinitis in my left wrist), and my forehand had always sucked. I have always have a tendency to do things differently that others, so I had the most weird forehand (something like this) which gave the ball a lot of spin but made it difficult to achieve winners.

During my exchange year, in Berlin, Germany, I played quite a lot with an Italian friend of mine. We played almost every week, and I was clearly better than him, but I still I was very frustrated when playing against him, since I could barely dominate the game with my shitty forehand. So when I returned to Cordoba, my hometown, and started playing during the last year of university, 2007-2008, I decided to change the grip of my forehand and start playing just like everybody else. This may sound easy, but it is the hardest of things to change the way you have done something fore more than ten years. At the beginning it was terrible. I just could not keep the ball in the court, and I kept on changing between my old and my new grip. I played few months like that and I felt really frustrated, since I had been playing fore more than ten years I could by no means be considered a good player. As I said, my two hands backhand was still pretty good, but the tendinitis in my wrist didn’t make things easy.

But I still loved the sport, and a week after I had arrived to Beijing in 2008 to start my China adventure I had already contacted a French guy in the Internet to start playing together. The guy was pretty good, and the first time we played he destroyed me. Still in the forehand transition phase I had no confidence in my game, and after we played I was afraid he would not want to play with me any longer.

Fortunately with me he was too busy to find another tennis partner (he was running a business), and so we kept on playing occasionally. My forehand still sucked, but when my left wrist was in good condition I could more or less be a decent adversary. During 2008-2009 I played with him many times. He would usually beat me, but some times (very few), with a lot of effort, I could outplay him.

In 2009 I got a one-year scholarship to study Mandarin at the Peking University. We were living in the dorms for foreigners, which were ten times better than those for Chinese. They were in the west side from the campus, quite far away from the classrooms, but still I found the location wonderful: they were ten meters away from the tennis courts. I played a lot that year, I’d say at least once per week. I was still very frustrated at my game (you know, in my head I have always been a great player), but during this year I started seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. While my backhand still sucked there were times (not very often though) when I was felt relatively comfortable hitting the forehand. A big letdown was when I tried to make it for the Peking University tennis team.  In order to be in you had to beat the two guys of your group. The great organizing guys from Peking University put the three foreigners there in the same group, so that only one could be part of the team (as everybody knows, China is a pro-multicultural country, as it can been seen from their visa policies and the easy access of foreign internet sites). I first had to play against a German guy. He told me he hadn´t played in years, so I had hope. When we starting warming up I was sort having the initiative, but little by little he started playing better, and by the time we were about to start the match I wasn’t that confident anymore. He destroyed me 4-0 (in my defense I have to say that I had not played against a left-handed player for years, and that makes things much harder).

But I also had some glory while at Beida (short in Chinese for Peking University). In May I joined the Peking University Open. It gathered more than 60 players all around Beijing (probably no more than 20 people played decent tennis at Beida), and it would be a two days tournament. Sounded exciting.  For the first round I had to play in a four people group, best of four games, out of which the best two would classify. My first game was against a very tough opponent, but after a long fight I ended up winning. The other two guys were Korean, one pretty good and the other pretty bad. I ended up defeating both of them.  As it has happened to me many times in China, I am sure the good player from Korea was much better than me, but his strategy and competitiveness weren’t as good (my technic sucks, yeah, but I have been playing tournaments since I was nine). After that I had to play in the 32 best, already a one set match. I don’t remember the details, but I won the first match and then returned to the dorms to be received as a hero by my Spanish friends. The second day awaited, and after a good night sleep (I used to love the feeling when I was a kid when you went to bed anxiously waiting for the next morning tennis tournament) I was ready for the battle.

The match was at nine or ten am, and I knew my opponent very well.  He was the tennis trainer at Beida. He was a middle aged man in his forties, and a real dick. I could explain further, but let’s just say he wasn´t the nicest of persons. It was my opportunity to show him some good manners. I beat him 6-0 in which it is one of the happiest memories in tennis I have.

After him I won one of two more games, and without realizing it I had made it to the top 4 of the tournament. The guy I had to play with wasn’t a beginner. Our level was similar, but his forehand was clearly better (no wonder). After half an hour of battle I was leading 4-3. I would have easily defeated him, but, unlike most of the Chinese guys I have played with, he was a smart guy, and he realized my forehand sucked, and so he played all the balls there. I ended up losing 6-4.

My feelings after the tournament were mixed. I had won lots of games, but at the end of the day I was still disappointed at my forehand, over which I didn’t have much control. That was already in May (God it was hot at Beida), and after a few more weeks I returned to Spain for the summer. I had applied for two scholarships to study a MA in the United States. I applied for two scholarships, and having passed the screening phase for both of them I had to attend the interviews, one in June and one in September. That meant I had to be stuck in Spain for the whole summer. I didn’t play much tennis during that summer and, worst of all, I didn’t get any of the scholarships (good thing I didn’t, now that I think of it), so at the end of September I was back in Beijing. I didn’t know it back then, but that year in Beijing was the beginning of a professional career I would have never thought of. And most relevant for this entry, the beginning of a new age in my tennis career.

domingo, 26 de febrero de 2012

Love (2012): movie review

Watching a Chinese movie can be a painful experience. I have endured this pain in the past, but yesterday’s movie was just too much, so I have decided to write an account of it as a therapeutic measure.

Love, like many other Chinese movies, looks more like a commercial (BMW, Häagen Dazs, etc) than a real love story.  The title suggests the movie is going to be about love, but the relationships between the characters never tell us why they like each other.

For example, there is the character RouYi, interpreted by the beautiful Taiwanese actress ShuQi. The movie starts with RouYi meeting a handsome guy in a hotel in Taipei. After having an argument and ending their relationship, RouYi leaves the hotel room and meets another man, apparently her real boyfriend, and she tells him that they should get married.  But as the movie progresses we realize RouYi is not happy with this man, who by the way also seems to cheats on her on a frequent basis. We also learn she has never worked, and she has been dating different rich men throughout her life. But suddenly (we are not told why) she is not happy with this man and falls in love with a teenager she meets on the street. This guy is not rich, intelligent, smart or interesting. He is just a random guy who is sweet to her, and so, a gorgeous looking woman who is used to extreme wealth suddenly decides to leave everything and start a new relationship with this dumb looking guy. Very simple, but apparently Chinese audiences don’t need much more.

However, this story is quite credible compared to that of Akai. Akai is a 1.82m tall, tanned athletic looking guy (just like the other two protagonists of the movie), who is very in love with her girlfriend, XiaoNi. But accidents happen, and he ends up kissing, and having sex, and not using a condom with his girlfriend’s best friend YiJia. YiJia is very sorry about it (although in the “sex scene” she looks like a starving tiger when jumping over her best friend’s boyfriend), but she has the great idea of continuing with the pregnancy.  You know, she has no job, and she does not love Akai, and raising the baby would make things even weirder with her best friend. But all that is ok, since she is a traditional girl and traditional girls don’t abort.

Another memorable scene of the movie is when XiaoNi, the one cheated, tells her father that he could help hundreds of poor African boys by donating the big amount of money he spends every night on expensive wines. So far so good.  However her sense of social justice doesn’t seem to trouble her for long, since right afterwards we see her driving a brand new convertible BMW.

Finally, there’s the story between Mark and XiaoYe, interpreted by the popular actress Vicky Zhao. This story is actually not TOO ridiculous. It is about a very successful and attractive young guy who falls in love with an average good looking and not very successful girl. I would develop this story farther, but there is really not much to tell.

And that’s it. I recommend next time you want to go to the theater to watch a Chinese movie you either think twice about it or bring lots of alcohol that could make the experience more bearable.