Dr Z

I imagine many people have a mental list of books they would like to read but never get around to doing so. Top of my list was Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago. Somehow, each time I entered a book store or started browsing on Amazon, my mind would go blank and I would quickly be distracted by any book except those on my must-read list.

Now that my access to good books is more limited, geographically and financially, I was fortunate to come across a dog-eared copy of Zhivago in the kitchen of my children’s school. I borrowed it over Christmas and spent a week wallowing in beautiful prose. I have seen the film so many times that when I read the name Yuriatin, it was as if I had lived there myself in some distant past.

I was also struck by the more fast paced, modern style, compared with the earlier Russian greats who could draw out a duck shoot for a dozen pages with dense description and minimal action. Still, compared with contemporary fiction, Pasternak’s characters seem remote with their passionate, eloquent discourses on symbolist poetry or political theology. Are we capable of talking so intelligently these days? Can we hold forth without sounding like a professionally coached politician or sales advertisement? Is getting passionate about American Idol or David Beckham comparable with our forefathers’ concerns?

Answers: yes, possibly and no.

I was also intrigued by the crafting of the novel and the film. Both are masterpieces in their own right, but the changes made in the film allow us to see more clearly how the elements are employed to create great art. The plot is simplified in a number of ways: secondary characters are dropped and passages not directly involving Zhivago are either cut or else key visual elements are recuperated and slotted into the main plot (e.g. the officer shot in the barrel). The meeting of Zhivago’s daughter and his brother (Alec Guinness) opens and closes the movie (only occuring at the end in the novel), providing a neat frame as well as reassuring the audience that Zhivago and Lara do meet, even though they have to wait almost two hours before the promised great romance actually blossoms.

The screenwriter, Robert Bolt, was told by director David Lean to focus on the love story and downplay the politics. Lean’s instructions to Omar Sharif were to “do nothing”, in an attempt to capture the image of a poet observing life around him. Julie Christie probably got the same instruction because she plays Lara almost without words, conveying powerful emotions of determination and sorrow through her gritted jaw and clear blue eyes, usually carefully lighted or framed by a scarf or other device. This “lean” version of the novel works because what is sacrificed is replaced by some of the most haunting scenes in cinema.

Dr Zhivago was voted most romantic movie of all time in a Blockbuster poll in 2002. The most romantic scene of all time was voted to be in the ice palace when Zhivago begins writing his Lara poems. The scene is a wonderful example of the artifice of cinema because it was filmed in central Spain in temperatures of over 100°F, the surrounding fields covered with cloth and marble dust and the magical house interior created by throwing buckets of white molten wax then fixing it with cold water.

If Bolt and Lean cut out a lot, they also built up certain elements to create a greater cohesion than in the novel. For example, the repeated image of a candle by the window that melts the ice to allow us or Zhivago to peer through, or the close up on the bottle of iodine that Lara uses to clean Pasha’s cut face and the bottle’s later use in Lara’s mother’s suicide attempt.

The most striking change was the shooting incident. In the novel, Lara shoots Kornakov, an assistant public prosecutor who had persecuted a group of striking railway workers that included her fiancee’s father. I read the passage several times to make sure who had been shot. A woman screams, Koka, Kokochka! referring to Kornakov, not Lara’s wicked seductor, Komarovsky. It’s often hard in Russian literature to follow who’s who when authors seem to delight in inventing endless variations on a name. Dr Zhivago, for example is at turns Yurii, Yura, Yurochka, Yurii Andreievich or plain Zhivago. Pavel is also known as Pasha, Pashenka, Pashenga, Antipov and finally Strelnikov.

But there was no confusion. The movie cut off all the extraneous threads and kept it simple: Lara, the wronged woman, shot Komarovsky as an act of vengeance.

I could go on to write about how the real Lara was twice sentenced to labour camps as a means of indirectly punishing Pasternak or how radical publisher Feltrinelli smuggled the manuscript out of the USSR for its first publication in Italian … but I fear I’ve already lost many readers. If you’ve read this far, here’s your reward.

Love in a cold climate gone in sixty seconds

The following photo montage was inspired by Woody Allen’s joke:

I took a course in speed reading, learning to read straight down the page. At the end of the course I could read War and Peace in twenty minutes.

It’s about Russia.

So here’s my tribute to Dr Zhivago.

Tech note: Big up to Willem for the Swish scripting.

King Merc meets higglers uptown

Uptown shopping
Shopping from the comfort of your car in uptown Kingston.

Although the resolution is too low to read here, I’ve changed the licence plate to [BUSHA 2].

For an explanation of the title Busha, read the following extract from Anthony C. Winkler’s hilarious novel, The Lunatic.

The Busha was the richest man in the parish. His land splashed over fields, licked at the belly of the mountain, and rolled down to the coastline. It was a luxuriant land, fed by wild streams and springs, rich with fruit trees and guinea grass pastures. It supported goats, cattle, fruit trees, rats, and praedial thieves.

Busha had inherited this land from his father, his father from his father, and so on down through a succession of twelve fathers stretching back to the earliest days of Jamaica. The very title of “Busha” – a slave corruption of “overseer” – spoke of ancestry, wealth, land, striking the local ear with the same galvanic ring that initials such as ITT, IBM, GM have on Americans.

Exercise in stylee

There is an ongoing debate in Jamaica concerning the validity and usefulness of patois, the local dialect. On one side, some argue that it is an authentic language of communication used by the majority of Jamaicans and should therefore have its place in the school curriculum; on the other side, critics argue that promoting patois will limit the user’s opportunities in a standard English world. Just yesterday, one critic, a professor of history at Johns Hopkins University no less, stated that encouraging patois at school:

encourages a lapse of mental and physical discipline as well as the wanton disregard of conventional standards.
Daily Observer, 27/01/06

At that level of understanding, he might have added that it stunts your growth and can lead to blindness.

As a linguist, my starting point is that any language in use is valid and worthy of study. The interest is in discovering how different languages are used to present users’ different experiences and perceptions of their world. Patois fascinates me with its etymological richness and its oral strength. Etymologically, it echoes the national motto,


with its incredibly diverse borrowings from other languages: Wolof (Senegal), Twi & Fante (Ghana), Ewe (Ghana & Togo), Ibo & Hausa (Nigeria), Bube (Bioko), Bantu Douala (Cameroon), Kikongo (Congo), Gulla (US South Carolina dialect), Amharic (Ethiopia), Galibi (Guyana), Hindi, Portuguese, Spanish, Latin and of course English.

The oral strength of patois is evident in its many phatic expressions, such as hear me now, y’hear? Ah tell yah, seen? Phatic expressions serve to keep communication open by checking reception. It is considered to be the primary function of language for babies, when they learn that their first attempts at communication trigger enthusiastic responses. In standard English, the most common example these days is on a cellphone with poor reception:

Hello! Hello! Can you hear me?!

In face to face conversation, however, standard English has become more formalized and expects the listener to follow without extra phatic encouragement.

As a validation exercise, I thought of rewriting a famous text in patois. The text itself is without interest; the trick is rendering it in different ways. Originally published in 1947, Raymond Queneau’s Exercices de style have become the most celebrated example of a writing constraint, where the writer imposes a restriction on the limits of writing. Other examples include texts by Queneau’s disciple, Georges Perec, such as La disparition, which was written without using the letter “e”, and Les revenentes in which the only vowel used is “e”!

The constraint of retelling the same banal story in 99 different styles reveals the incredible potential of language that we use every day without thought. The different versions include telling the story as if in a dream, or in the style of a book blurb or as an offical letter, or simply playing with time, colours, different accents or jargon. Exercices de style was brilliantly translated into English by Barbara Hepworth, who privileged Queneau’s spirit of playfulness over mechanical translation.

So here’s the point of this post: a retelling of Queneau’s story in patois. The story in standard English is as follows: the narrator gets in a crowded bus and notices a young man with a long neck wearing a hat with a plait (braid) instead of a ribbon. The young man has a minor altercation with another passenger then quickly retreats to a free seat. Shortly after, the narrator sees the same man in discussion with a friend. The friend tells the young man that he should put the button on his overcoat higher (!). Hardly Hollywood material, but the point is forcing this meagre material into different forms through the power of language.

Here’s my attempt at a patois version:

Now hear dis, mek Ah tell oonu, wa day de bus dem full up wid so much people dem. An ah see dere one dem jump up good fuh nutten boasie maaga jancro wid him winjy neck fit fe choke, ah tell yah bwai! ‘im a fix a ribbon an ‘is ‘at fenky-fenky come een like ‘im Selassie ‘isself, yaah! Smady cut yai an’ ‘im vex an’ bawl some faasty nying’i-nying’i. It oht fi mek one kass-kass, ah’m tellin’ yah. Cho! ‘im nah tallowah doh an’ ‘im jus’ kiss ‘im teet’ an’ a go cotch far dereso quick quick.

Kiss mi nek, nah tree hower layta me see ‘im gen laba-laba wid ‘im breddah oo seh ‘im muss put ‘im button likkle more higher depan ‘im coat so, seen?

Jack Mandora

I would be grateful if other true speakers of patois correct and improve my version. For non-patois speakers, see if you can come up with another version based on your regional dialect or local slang or marketing jargon or …

A is for Ackee

After most of the children’s books drowned in the hotel flood, we bought some new ones in a local bookshop. One of the books was an alphabet colouring book. The first page had a blob outline and the text, A is for ackee. We had no idea what it was, nor what colour it should be.

Ackee - forbidden fruit

Soon enough we’d had our first taste of this strange fruit and all were pleasantly surprised by its resemblance to scrambled egg. Good, I thought, a new way of getting some vitamins in the kids without protest. However, I also quickly found out that ackee can also be extremely dangerous. Or as Callen Damornen puts it,

If the inside is not ripe or overly ripe, it is poisonous. The pod is also poisonous as well as the rest of the plant and seed. The water in which the fruit is cooked is also poisonous.

Uh-huh. AckeeScare me some more.

• Nausea and vomiting occur in 75% of patients; severe vomiting may be followed by a quiescent phase, followed by recurrent vomiting.
• Diaphoresis and pallor
• Tachypnea and tachycardia
• Headache
• Weakness and paresthesias
• Seizures, generalized tonic clonic, occur in 24% of patients.
• Drowsiness and coma occur in 25% of patients.
• Death may occur in an average of 12.5 hours in severe, untreated cases.

Source: eMedicine

“Tonic clonic” sounds like this year’s dance drug (I’m listening to a Leftfield Essential mix). But still, blimey, Callen recommends wearing rubber gloves when you handle the stuff. You’d think it was radioactive the way they go on, yet it’s sold on every street corner and is a staple food, served most tastily with saltfish.

To end, a little display of my fool-fool CSS skills, with a quote from my current bedtime reading, Michael Thelwell’s superb novel based on Perry Henzell’s celebrated film, The Harder They Come.

The Harder They Come
In the days when sugar was akin to gold, and the metaphor for wealth in European society was “wealthy as a West Indian planter,” that same planter class, anxious to increase profits, used the Royal Navy to scour the Empire for plants that would feed their slaves and so lessen their dependence on imported food.

Ackee_detail They had succeeded too well for their own interests, bringing yams, ackees, melons, assorted tubers and peas from Africa, mangoes from India, breadfruit, apples, and coconuts from the far reaches of the Pacific, finally bringing to the land the riches that helped end slavery and their world. For the Africans, taking seeds and cuttings, had simply left the plantations to establish free communities in the hills.

Bad timing

I can imagine the frustration among the editors of tabloid magazines such as Chi and Gente (read Hello! and People): the Pope, Prince Rainier of Monaco and Saul Bellow all dead the same week.

Look out for the full-page blurry photo op of the Nobel laureate in next week’s issue.