21 February 2017

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes, UK, 2016

Julian Barnes writes on page 125 (edition published by Jonathan Cape): What could be put up against the noise of time? Only that music which is inside ourselves – the music of our being – which is transformed by some into real music. Which, over decades, if it is strong and true and pure enough to drown out the noise of time, is transformed into the whisper of history.

This a beautiful book, beautifully researched and written. There is nothing in the early part of the book that indicates that the book is about Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich; this is information that appears piece by piece, until the reader says: “Why, of course… ”

Drawing upon a number of biographies of the composer, The Noise of Time is not itself a biography, even though it follows a rough timeline from birth to death. In many ways it is a painting of Shostakovich where his emotions and his vital essence take priority over dates and happenings. It is this presentation that makes the book so special and so readable.

Shostakovich is a gifted composer, for whom music is everything, who is caught up in a society that has lost its soul. He watches while other creative people are exiled to camps or executed, and he awaits the knock on the door that will lead to the same fate for himself. Bit by bit he learns that the truthful expression of his innermost emotions will only lead to annihilation. In the end he compromises.

It is this compromise that is the most difficult thing Shostakovich has done. He is no longer being completely truthful to the creative force within him, but the alternative does not bear thinking about. Some may see him as a coward, but opting to reconcile two opposing forces – his own creative nature and the Soviet State – Shostakovich must be given due praise.

His fears, his love of music, his frustration with the State and the people administrating it weave together to give us the portrait of a man filled with the boundlessness of music but also with many regrets and much soul-searching. Definitely a book worth reading.

The photo of Julian Barnes above is from HeadStuff

07 February 2017

Argo by Antonio Mendez and Matt Baglio, USA, 2012

In November 1979, Iranian revolutionaries, many of them students, stormed the American Embassy in Tehran and took more than sixty staff hostage. The attack was condoned by the Ayatollah Khomeini who, only months earlier, had formed a provisional government after the exile of the shah, and although several hostages were later released the majority remained captive for 444 days. Unbeknown to the revolutionaries six Embassy staff were outside of the Embassy when it was attacked, and they managed to keep themselves hidden until the Canadian Embassy gave them refuge. The fact that they had avoided capture and that the Canadians were now harbouring them had to be kept secret, but everyone knew that it was only a matter of time before the revolutionaries would flush them out.

Antonio Mendez, working in the disguise and extrication section of the CIA, was given the job of getting the six Americans out of Iran. He knew that his chances of success were extremely slim, but he was prepared to try even if it meant that he could lose his life in the process. He came up with the idea of a film company producing a film ‘Argo’, and the six Americans were to be Canadian film crew checking possible locations for the film. Mendez hoped that the airport immigration authority would accept the story – evident from all the forged paperwork – that the Americans had only been in the country for a few days and were now on their way elsewhere.

Photo of Antonio Mendez from

The amount of background work that went into building up this story is amazing, and from this point of view the book is extremely interesting. However, excluding the final chapter where there are some nail-biting scenes, the book fails to impart the tension and the suspense that would have been a major part of such an undertaking. This could be the fault of the writing, which is very mediocre, or it could be due to the fact that there is far too much, to my way of looking at it unnecessary, information and too many references to incidental characters. I can understand that Mendez most probably wanted to give some idea of his standing and his exploits within the CIA, but the overload of information impacts negatively on the story as a whole. 
Photo of Matt Baglio from
The book was followed almost immediately by the film by the same name. Since reading the book, I have seen the film, and thankfully it does manage to extricate the suspense and water down the information overload.