Black Swan

By Rob Packer

Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan

I went to see Black Swan yesterday and thought it worked really well as an exploration of an insanity built up by years of pressure—even if the climax making half the audience roar with laughter. The film takes place around a New York production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake with Natalie Portman playing the insecure ballerina, Nina. While auditioning for the role, Nina’s innocence is borne out in her depiction of the White Swan, but the more overt sensuality of the Black Swan escapes her and she is only cast at the last moment by ballet director, Thomas (Vincent Cassell) after he tries to kiss her and she bites him on the lip. At the same time, Lily (Mila Kunis) arrives at the company and becomes both Nina’s friend and rival for the lead role.

The film’s most constant motif is the doppelgänger, most obviously in the ballet world as the White and Black Swans and the understudy, or alternate as they say in the film; and in Nina’s catching glimpses of herself passing her doubles by on the street, the subway or the stage. But the doppelgänger theme goes deeper: from the beginning of the film the light greys and pinks of Portman’s clothes are contrasted with the darker hues clothing Lily and Nina’s mother, and Nina even seems to become a doppelgänger of herself when her image in a mirror stays still while she moves and scratches itself.

Nina’s mother is equally insecure, almost throwing away a cake to celebrate when her daughter gets the starring role. As the film progresses it becomes obvious that a bedroom full of cuddly toys and a ballerina musical box are there to enforce an extended childhood on Nina, the daughter whose birth meant that her mother’s own ballet career was cut short: Nina is obviously under pressure to succeed where her mother failed. And she seems to have been successful when at one point Thomas asks Nina if she’s a virgin, and the theme of youth (or pseudo-virginity) continues in the story of Beth (Winona Ryder), who Thomas appears to have forced into retirement.

The youthful body of a ballerina is also a frail one, and Nina’s fragility almost seems brittle as the camera focuses on toes bloody from dancing, Nina’s nervous and constant scratching her back and Thomas’ almost grotesquely large hands against a ballerina’s body. The physical trials of the ballerina mix with Nina’s own insecurities in hallucinatory sequences where her toes have fused together or she collapses as her legs snap.

Compared to Nina, Lily is her opposite: extroverted, sensual, ambitious, she is the Black Swan to match Nina’s innocence. She plays such an important part in Nina’s paranoia and hallucinations to the extent that I started to wonder whether she was “real” or the alter ego of Nina’s psychosis. As Nina comes closer to Lily and starts to act out her irrational side—reminding me the irrational Dämonische of Goethe or Thomas Mann that I came across studying German Literature at university—she comes to master the Black Swan and her portrayal at opening night draws rapturous applause from the audience, but the film’s ambiguous ending seems to say that Nina can’t control having a Black and White Swan persona within her at the same time.

Black Swan is a disturbing, but fantastic film. It combines the real with hallucinations in such a way that you leave the cinema confused and turning over in your head what was real and what was hallucination.

The Bridge over the Drina

Review of Ivo Andrić’s The Bridge over the Drina

By Rob Packer

The Bridge over the Drina by Ivo Andrić

Winning the Nobel Prize in Literature isn’t always the timeless honour for posterity that people often associate it with and some of its winners remain as relative unknowns on the world stage: Ivo Andrić, the prize’s Yugoslavian recipient in 1961, probably falls into this category despite his fame in the countries of the former Yugoslavia. Andrić’s most famous work is The Bridge over the Drina, a book written while the author was under house arrest in Belgrade during the Second World War and set in Višegrad, the eastern Bosnian town where he grew up.

I read the book while I was in the Balkans earlier this month and the cover of Harvill’s edition promises that “No better introduction to the study of Balkan and Ottoman history exists”. The novel fits within the nation-defining tradition that often combines history and fiction in new nations trying to find their place in the world, and reminded me of Jan Neruda, one of the first Czech writers to write in Czech. Rather than having a central human character, the novel revolves around Višegrad’s Ottoman bridge charting the history of the town and the townspeople over nearly 350 years; and as you read the novel it seems more like a fictionalized history book than historical fiction, which gives it more structure than The Railway, a novel that also lacks clearly defined central characters and which I also read recently.

As you read The Bridge over the Drina, history seems to be a faceless, but powerful force: Višegrad might sit at a cultural crossroads between the worlds of Christianity and Islam, but history happens around and to the town and is controlled by outsiders with the inhabitants watching uncomprehendingly as they sit on the bridge drinking coffee. In the context of only basic education, the townspeople learn by observation alone: for most of the book, the bridge is a constant, unquestionable presence to the characters, even though when the Ottomans originally built the bridge, it was seen as a futile, even godless, act; and at the end as the bridge is mined as the Austro-Hungarian army fall back, its partial destruction is seen as another futile and godless act.

One of the things that seems to emphasize itself again and again in the book is the constant ethnic divide in the town between “Turks”—the term historically used for Bosniak Muslims—and the Serbs. It is a neighbourly attitude mixed with suspicion rather than a hostile one; however, suspicion and fear come to the fore whenever history starts to act on the town, at Serbian independence in the 19th century or when the Ottoman Empire withdraws from Bosnia. In some ways the divide seems insurmountable; and looking at Andrić’s own political views, it can only be overcome by removing foreign rule and independence—in 1945, this is Yugoslavia’s rather than Bosnia’s independence.

Going back to the promise on the book’s cover, it does put the Balkans’ recent struggles in historical perspective and is an excellent introduction to the region, and Bosnia in particular, which always seems to be a microcosm of European ethnic difficulties. The way it threads through history and its intensely regional viewpoint isn’t for everyone, but for anyone interested in the Balkans it’s unmissable.

Ivo Andrić, The Bridge over the Drina (Na Drini ćuprija/На Дрини ћуприја), Harvill 1994. (Original 1945)

Tales from Uzbekistan

Review of Hamid Ismailov’s The Railway

By Rob Packer

"The Railway" by Hamid Ismailov

“The Railway” by Hamid Ismailov

I first bought a copy of Hamid Ismailov’s The Railway when I was freshly returned from my three-month stint in Central Asia at the end of 2009; but one thing led to another, the book was left at home when I headed to Colombia and Mexico and I didn’t read the novel until this week.

The book is one of those rarities you sometimes stumble across in a bookshop, or in the literature section of the Lonely Planet to an obscure destination, a post-Soviet novel by a dissident Uzbek émigré living in London and writing in Russian. Rather than a novel, it’s really a collection of fables set around Gilas, a fictional railway town in Uzbekistan and each chapter is the story of a family or individual from the village. The book covers so many parts of Central Asian life during the Soviet Union that I recognized from living there: the patchwork of ethnic groups (Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Kazakhs), the internal exiles brought by Stalin from other parts of the Soviet Union (Koreans with their kimchi, Germans or members of groups from Siberia), and the universality of Bollywood films that everyone watches but no-one understands—and which are now being copied on very low budgets by Uzbekistan’s post-independence film industry. But when it comes down to it, as much as I wanted to enjoy the book, it never grabbed me and I kept feeling that there was something missing.

The book is full of fantastical elements, which reminded me of an essay by Declan Kiberd on Irish Literature and Irish History I recently read where he makes the link between the inner world of fantasy of several Irish writers and the “fabulistic techniques” of post-colonial literature in Latin America and India. And the post-Soviet fantastical mind makes compelling stories for a handful of the hundred or so characters—all of which have hyphenated nicknames. I enjoyed the story of Mullah-Ulmas-Greeneyes, an Uzbek who spends his life being mistaken for Jewish both by the German army in the Second World War and by the Brezhnev regime who lets him emigrate to Brighton Beach. A high point of fantastical storytelling is reached in the story of Mahmud-Hodja’s journeys across Central Asia to Mecca and back with Maike, a Kyrgyz hungry enough to eat half a flock of sheep and thirsty enough to drink rivers nearly dry. Meanwhile, the story of Oppok-Lovely, who becomes the local passport officer and can be bribed to change all kinds of details in internal passports, is a sad example of the corruption that plagued the Soviet Union. But a lot of the characters fell flat and seemed no more than ciphers for bawdy humour, like the drunkard village intellectual whose drinking partner urinates on his hair; outsized physical attributes, such as a penis mistaken for a battering ram; unexplained mass movements, like a self-mutilating religious cult; or the theme of violence and rape that seems to build throughout the course of the book.

I think my fundamental problem with novels of this type is that they start out with the premise of a novel but the substance of a collection of stories. A novel doesn’t necessarily need a central plot, so much as a central framing device, like the group of storytellers of the Decameron or a continual physical presence such as Ivo Andrić’s bridge on the Drina; the only thing that comes close are the recurring fragments of the story of an unnamed boy. But at the same time, I don’t really feel that the chapters—there are exceptions—stand up as individual short stories. This is a shame: the book had a lot of potential but fell short of my expectations and its Central Asian subject matter is fascinating, especially given the epic storytelling that flows deep in the region. For an introduction to the region, I’d still stick with Colin Thubron’s Lost Heart of Asia or the perfection of Chingiz Aimatov’s incredible Jamilia.

Hamid Ismailov, The Railway, Vintage 2006

Sveti Stefan: A luxury legacy of communism

By Rob Packer

Looking back on it, Yugoslavia really had my kind of communists: sometime after breaking with Stalin in the 1950’s, Tito’s government requisitioned Sveti Stefan, a small and incredibly picturesque island fishing village on the Montenegrin coast to turn it into a luxury resort whose guests included Sofia Loren, Princess Margaret and Marilyn Monroe.

When Yugoslavia fell apart during the 1990’s, the bottom fell out of the Montenegrin tourism industry and the resort closed. It has now reopened as part of Aman Resorts and from the pictures on its website it is obviously aiming for luxury and exclusivity – or maybe eksklyusivnost.

Exclusivity comes at a price though: the place is strictly off-limits to non-guests.

Sveti Stefan, luxury resort in a communist state.

The closest I was getting to Sveti Stefan this time.

The other view from Sveti Stefan.

White Elephants? Tourism in Montenegro

By Rob Packer

In southeast Asia when a subject overstepped the mark, the king sometimes gave him a white elephant, a holy animal requiring elaborate care and a ban on paying its way by working; in most cases, this “gift” bankrupted the recipient and the term white elephant has come into the English and French languages to mean something that is very expensive to maintain with very little gain. The term doesn’t exist in all languages and certainly doesn’t in Serbian: one of the real estate agencies I saw in Budva was called Bijeli Slon, which means White Elephant. Not exactly what Montenegro’s government has in mind as it develops its tourism infrastructure at breakneck pace.

White elephants on the Montenegrin coast.

Budva's harbour: count the yachts.

Montenegro is often touted as an “undiscovered Mediterranean jewel” Read more of this post

Inside the Black Mountain

By Rob Packer

As the road snakes its way up from Budva towards the Montenegrin interior, the landscape undergoes a profound change: the relatively lush greens of the coast disappear and are replaced, in winter, by the browns and greys of a landscape that reminded me a lot of the surface of the moon. The first time I saw it on my way to Cetinje, I wondered how people survived on this land that—apart from a few areas of farmland and some terracing—appears to yield next to nothing. But rather than being a marginal, remote area of the country, this is actually its heart: the Black Mountain—what Montenegro means in every language I know—is the one area of the Balkans where neither the Ottomans nor the Habsburgs penetrated and where Montenegrins guarded their independence for centuries.

The Black Mountain: the view over Montenegro's mountainous interior.

The view of the coast from the road to Podgorica and Cetinje, the current and former capital.

Montenegro's rocky interior.

It has never been a rich place, and this is obvious from the start in a place like Cetinje, the capital of Montenegro’s prince-bishops before joining Yugoslavia after the First World War. Read more of this post

Perast: A Town on the Bay

By Rob Packer

Like so many places on the Montenegrin coast, Perast gets by on its good looks in summer and spends its winters in hibernation. The town is a former Venetian port town on the steep slopes of the Bay of Kotor and it’s full of pretty stone buildings looking out on two small islands in the bay.

Other than eating and visiting the islands in summer, there really isn’t all that much to do though.

Pretty much all you need to know about Perast: stone buildings and two islands.


No wasted journey: Herceg Novi

By Rob Packer

It might not look far on a map, but the journey from Herceg Novi, the first Montenegrin town you’d arrive at from Croatia, to anywhere in Montenegro takes far longer than you think it should at first glance. The reason is quite simple: the indentations on the Bay of Kotor are enormous and the road hugs the shoreline. After the 2-hour journey from Budva, I quickly started to think that those were two hours wasted: Herceg Novi’s old town is decent enough, but nothing compared with Kotor, Dubrovnik, Hvar or any of the other towns I’ve visited on this trip. With a this-had-better-be-worth-it attitude, I stormed off to the Savina Monastery, an Orthodox monastery supposedly founded in the 13th century (reports differ). It was more than worth it: the monastery complex is made up of two churches dedicated to the Assumption: the larger one is newer with an enormous iconostasis, but the real gem is the smaller—and older—one, which is covered with fantastic frescoes.

The journey was more than worth it. Read more of this post

Reality in Kotor

By Rob Packer

My arrival in Montenegro was hardly glamorous: my bus pulled into Budva at around 4:30am after 8 and a half hours crossing the mountains of Bosnia and Montenegro: either the quality of the roads or the suspension combined with an inconveniently timed border crossing into Montenegro meant that I didn’t get much sleep and justified my lie-in that way.

I decided to spend the afternoon in Kotor, a city that saw its heyday under nearly four centuries of Venetian rule. The town sits at the head of the Bay of Kotor, a spectacular submerged river canyon that feels and looks more like a fjord. In winter, it’s almost deserted and you can enjoy getting lost as you wander around: the place is a maze, although the Romanesque cathedral with its frescoes and the sides of the bay are always there to orient you.

The postcard view of Kotor.

What will make Kotor forever special for me, though, was the lunch I had at the Stari Grad restaurant. Read more of this post


By Rob Packer

I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere like Sarajevo. No other country that I’ve visited has seen war as recently as Bosnia, no other city a siege. I was ten when Bosnia declared its independence and was immediately consumed by war. It’s the first conflict that I remember well and I think that the memories that I do have will always be connected with the names of the country, the capital and several other cities in the country—a sign to Travnik or a bus to Srebrenica bring back memories of news footage of the war. These won’t go away; but now that I’ve been there, they’ll be mixed with my own memories of the country.

Unlike Mostar, Sarajevo feels much more alive: the city is much bigger and the far-wider rebuilding effort makes you feel that it’s looking towards a normalized future, rather than just towards the past. Having said that, however, history bears its mark on the city: if you simplify things, Sarajevo’s tramline runs from east to west, passing from the Ottoman-era market of Baščaršija through Austro-Hungarian Ferhadija to the Yugoslav city built for the 1984 Olympics, which later became known as Sniper Alley during the Bosnian War where snipers from the Serbian army were able to shoot Sarajevans as they crossed the road.

The Sebilj, a fountain at the centre of Baščaršija, Sarajevo's Turkish quarter.

Ferhadija, the main drag of Sarajevo's Austro-Hungarian centre.

Zmaja od Bosne, a.k.a. Sniper Alley during the war. The yellow building on the left is the Holiday Inn, which was built for the 1984 Winter Olympics.

As I walked through the Sarajevo Under Siege exhibition at the city’s History Museum, I was reminded of the hardship that people had to go through 15 years ago—a lot of which I’m also ashamed to say passed me by at the time. Read more of this post

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