Thursday, June 25, 2009


Hubert Aquin's Hamlet's Twin (original title, Neige noir) is a strange, hallucinatory, experimental novel from Québec. But in a book concerned with twins and doubles of all kinds--though with the recognition that no twins are in fact entirely alike--it is Spitsbergen, the archipelago halfway between Norway and the North Pole, that stands in for Canada, or is Canada's shadowy duplicate.

For all its twists and turns, the plot is in some ways simple enough. An actor by the name of Nicolas is playing Fortinbras in a TV production of Hamlet, but decides that he will leave the theater to write and direct his own films. Before doing that, or as part of the break from his old life, he takes his newly-wed wife, Sylvie, on a honeymoon to Spitsbergen. Once there, however, Sylvie dies in mysterious circumstances on a camping trip into the snow and ice. Nicolas returns to Norway and hooks up with his friend Eva, who soon comes to stand in for Sylvie. He also decides that his film will be autobiographical, and so that the death of his wife will be at its heart. But he can't quite bring himself to write that crucial scene.

Where things become complicated is that the novel itself is presented as a screenplay, perhaps as the screenplay for the film that Nicolas is himself writing. So it is shot through with reflections on the nature of representation, particularly the differences between filmic and literary representation, and the relation between fiction and reality. In some ways, then, Hamlet's Twin is almost classically postmodern: the distinction between characters and the people who play them, or between author, narrator, and protagonist, are all made the object of both literary play and somewhat disturbingly undermined.

And when the scene of Sylvie's death is finally written, it turns out to be particularly gruesome, and we are left to decide whether it is the product of a particularly disturbed imagination, or whether it is the violent mark of something like the real, at least within the terms of the metafictional apparatus that the book establishes. Eva, for one, becomes convinced that the film that Nicolas is writing will end up a snuff movie, and makes haste to warn the actress who is set to play Sylvie of the danger she believes is on the horizon.

For this actress, Linda, has also become another twin of Sylvie's; and moreover Sylvie is revealed to be split in other ways, too, until the fact that her body is never recovered from the Arctic wastes (and the fact that her true fate is ultimately undecideable) is a way of telling us that this character, around who the entire novel revolves, is going to remain inaccessible for us, as much as for Nicolas or the other characters. For after all, she is but a character in a novel, even though we are over the course of time slowly seduced into concern for her fate such that the graphic representation of her violent demise comes to be shocking, however much we recognize that this is, after all, just another novel.

For ultimately, Hamlet's Twin is about the hold that fiction has upon either the viewer (in the case of film) or the reader (in the case of literature). At one point Aquin points out that one difference between the two genres is that in the cinema, the viewer can't simply put down the narrative to resume it later, whereas a reader can leave a book to be continued anon. Playing with this fact, then, just before the novel's climax the narrator suggests that now might be the time for a break "for the reader who is waiting until the end of the story to make love with an impatient partner [. . .]. Come on, a nice break! It will be easier to concentrate afterwards, and tackle what is about to happen in the story" (184).

Of course, the point is that Aquin wants to implicate the reader all the more affectively and almost corporeally into the story. We are to imagine (or perhaps in fact to act out) having sex just before the representation of a most brutal perversion (though Aquin might also suggest apogee) of sexual love.

So for all its many games, its allusions and cleverness (not least the fundamental conceit that the book itself is some kind of disturbed twin to Shakespeare's Hamlet), ultimately this is a novel that, perhaps more desperately and yet unerotically than almost any other I can think of, really wants to grab us quite violently by the short and curlies. It seeks to get beyond the fact that representation is only ever going to be itself the inevitably perverted twin of the real, to break that unequal bond in order to establish a new relationship with the reader.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


One of my panels at LASA (the Latin American Studies Association congress) turned once more to discussion of Ernesto Laclau.

I have spent a long time engaging with Laclau (and I deal with his work at length in my book's first chapter). His is an important and influential theory--indeed, I argue that it is the most complete theory of hegemony--but it is also fundamentally flawed and fatally limited.

In essence, what Laclau has done is extrapolate from the discussions among a small number of leftist radicals in Argentina during the early 1970s, when populism seemed the only possible horizon for politics. Their question then was how could they redeem populism for a progressive project, when there seemed to be no alternative available.

It is impressive that Laclau has managed to produce an entire politico-theoretical system from the dilemma that these militants perceived in a particular place at a particular time.

But what is extraordinary, given the subsequent adoption of this system almost wholesale by so much of cultural studies, is that if we return to the Argentine situation we see that left-populism was proved totally mistaken.

For the left was violently expelled from the Peronist coalition almost as soon as Perón arrived back in the country following his long exile. Moreover, the subsequent military coup then (and even more violently) showed that populism itself had run up against its limit when it refused to acknowledge the role of the state.

No doubt pretty much any political philosophy is at root largely an extrapolation from a particular state of affairs. Antonio Negri, for instance, is in his own way also still captivated by his observation of the rapid changes in Italy during the 1950s and 1960s, and then by his part in the resulting struggles of the early 1970s.

But Negri was at least to some extent right: the dismal failure of the Italian Communist Party’s so-called "historic compromise" revealed the political and theoretical poverty of the theory of hegemony upon which Eurocommunism (so lauded by Laclau) depended.

Negri was of course wrong about the imminence of revolution both then and, I'd argue, now, though I still think that there is much to salvage from his work none-the-less. I suppose that followers of Laclau could similarly argue that hegemony theory can likewise be salvaged even after its failure in the context in which it was originally elaborated, and for which it should ideally work best.

But they don't seem to acknowledge that failure in the first place, in part no doubt because Laclau's increasingly abstract systematization serves to obscure that context quite totally for most of his commentators.

Sunday, June 21, 2009


Boa Vista is not far from the site of Arthur Conan Doyle's "Lost World," and at times it feels that way. The capital of Roraima State in Brazil's far north, near the border with Venezuela and Guayana, is a tropical backwater.

Down by the Rio Branco, the river on whose banks the city sits, there is a small complex of restaurants, bars, and cafes, but even on Saturday night half of them were closed and the other half were almost empty. Two solo guitarists, singing Brazilian popular hits, competed for what little attention that there was. A few couples lounged around, either at the outside tables or on the benches of the park alongside. A small child running around provided what little life that there was.

Earlier in the day there had been some kind of festivities on the other side of town, part the "Festa Junina," celebrated throughout Brazil in honor of the Summer Solstice and the Saints Anthony and John. Stalls and playgrounds had been set out, and loud music blared. But by five o'clock things had already wound down, tables were being cleared and chairs stacked.

The architecture, and the history that that architecture reflects, probably doesn't help. Boa Vista is quite clearly a planned town, with wide avenues radiating from a large (but quite unfrequented) central park. From above, or rather from Google Maps, it looks rather like the "arched window" from Play School.

Though there are a few older buildings down by the waterfront, mostly (with the exception of a beautiful church, painted in strident yellow) in a state of some disrepair, the town is now characterized by broad expanses dotted with the occasional modernist monument. The cathedral, for instance, is composed of sweeping concrete curves. A stadium further out shows similar attempts to make an architectural statement. The tallest structure in town (and no doubt the only one from which a "good view" can be found) is a concrete tube whose purpose is not immediately evident. Overall, it's as though Boa Vista had been envisaged as some kind of mini-Brasilia, a means to impose order on an otherwise dauntingly vast landscape of forest and plains.

But Boa Vista's history goes back further than Brasilia's. The small cluster of older buildings has been supplemented by a concrete, three-dimensional mural commemorating the pioneers and their "courage and hope" that founded the city back in the early to mid nineteenth century. It depicts a mounted settler who is leaping out of a canoe, his arm thrusting forwards, only to land on the shoulder of an oversized, naked indigenous youth.

For this is also the territory of Macunaíma, and so in some ways of some of Brazil's founding mythology. Macunaíma, here represented as the first inhabitant of the Rio Branco, is the eponymous subject of Mário de Andrade's 1928 novel, which traces the young man's journey from the jungle to Rio and São Paulo and back again, in the process uniting ancient and modern, indigenous and white, interior and coast in the image of a single if diverse national culture.

In such narratives (and there are many other similar ones--the successful film Central Station comes to mind, for instance) backwaters such as Boa Vista are recreated less as the site of a lost world than as the place where Brazil finally finds itself.

Perhaps no more. When I asked at my hotel's reception how to get to the town center, I was directed neither to the historic nor to the modern centers, but to what turned out to be a huge supermarket some blocks from either. Are Brazilians, too, now lost in the supermarket?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


A couple of quick links, and some thoughts about the current state of British politics...

First, it's good to see the recent success of Sweden's pirate party. The one spark of life in an election that otherwise was pretty dismal, not least in Britain with the implosion of Labour (in itself no bad thing) but the absence of any decent alternative (hence votes for Ukip and the vile BNP).

Second, on the political mood in the UK today, K-Punk is excellent in suggesting resonances with the late 1970s and the world recently conjured up so expressively by David Peace. In his words, "It seems as if we are tumbling and stumbling back towards a version of Callaghan's era, living through a negative 1979... tumbling and stumbling out through a political-economic event horizon that marks the end of neoliberalism."

The difference is that in 1979, at neoliberalism's outset, Thatcherism did offer some kind of alternative (in the guise, of course, of "no alternative"). Politics, for better or worse, was still alive and well. And even in 1997, when Labour came to power finally almost by default, as John Major's Tories crumbled under charges of sleaze not unlike (if less widespread than) those of today, Blair et. al. did at least seem to stand for something, an "ethical foreign policy" for instance, even if those principles were soon revealed as simply an extension of the New Labour brand.

Now, however, politics is no longer about politics... It's about petty corruption. Or it's about a new constitutional project, a project to reform the voting system and (finally) finish off the reform of the House of Lords.

The turn to constitutionalism is interesting, however much it is clearly also a mark of some desperation on the part of a party that has run out of ideas and hope. It's interesting because what is at stake is the shape of the body politic itself, which is why its tied to the now wholesale disrepute of the representational system triggered most recently by stories of duckhouses and the like.

So maybe, just maybe, we are truly entering interesting times.