Asterios Polyp – David Mazzucchelli

The story of Asterios Polyp, as he loses confidence and almost pulls his life apart, is narrated by his stillborn twin, Ignazio, and David Mazzucchelli illustrates it in a muted palette of purples, blues and pinks. It starts as Asterios’ apartment building burns to the ground, leaving him only enough time to grab three possessions. Although he has previously been a celebrated professor of architecture Asterios decided to turn his back on the embers of his past by taking a bus as far away as possible and finding work as a car mechanic. However, Ignazio fills in the details of this past as he narrates and suggests that Asterios is not making as clean a break as he initially claims. The three objects he saves from his home reveal stories about his parents, a failed marriage and past obsessions of Asterios’ personality. 

His relationship with a shy artist, Hana, is also narrated by Ignazio as their two personalities clash at times but also complement each other, with Mazzucchelli exploring how significant little moments can become. As Asterios struggles to rebuild his life while living with those who know nothing about his past his previous status as a celebrated professor of architecture is called into question as none of his designs were ever built and he is not recognised or respected outside of his elite circle. His character flaws also become apparent, as his loss of easy self-confidence reveals an arrogance in remembered past actions. Mazzucchelli sympathetically portrays the frustration of a man who has lost so much through carelessness and therefore turns away from the skills which he had previously also taken for granted to instead live by the work of his hands. 

The book includes a whole range of illustrative styles, with some pages laid out in a traditional way of evenly sized panels while others include overlapping frames, full bleeds and mismatching images. I particularly enjoyed the idea of separate interpretations of reality by each character which Mazzucchelli occasionally depicts through different colours and styles. The lines reach as far as the next character before breaking into a new kaleidoscope of colours and shapes. However, when Asterios and Hana start a conversation their two separate lines immediately merge to create a joint interpretation of blue and pink shaping. At difficult times in their marriage, this sympathetic union quickly separates and overtly visualises the distance that the couple finds between them.

I would definitely recommend Asterios Polyp as although the actual narrative is simple it is very carefully illustrated and there were certain scenes which I felt encapsulated ideas which would not be the same if written. My thoughts have often returned to the characters since reading it and I expect that they will continue to do so. 

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty

I arrived at the V&A’s current exhibition Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty with the highest possible expectations and left without a single one disappointed. Having looked forward to this exhibition for over a year and reading a huge number of articles in recent weeks I thought I would be prepared for the many wonders that are on show. However, it is only when you see the full variety of McQueen’s output together that you can appreciate the strength and imagination of his vision. There were ensembles that unsettled me, dresses of unworldly beauty and shoes which appeared to defy physics. In addition to this each room attempted to capture the essence of that particular collection and immerse the viewer in this idea, through both visual and audio accompaniment. This makes the exhibition an experience in itself, with even the walls complimenting the exhibits with one room filled with gilt framing and another almost like an ossuary.

McQueen’s talent for tailoring is evident throughout the exhibition, as his clothes manipulate the potential in the human form to create a variety of shapes. He learnt his skills through working on Savile Row and this confident knowledge allowed him to ignore the carefully honed rules to suggest new ways of viewing the body. He elongated the back to focus on the end of the spine by changing the cut of trousers, a principle which became sensuously clear as models walked down the runway in his “bumster” trousers and immediately entered the fashion consciousness. I was also fascinated by McQueen’s choice in fabrics, as he often married classic silhouettes with unconventional material. Feathers feature throughout his collections, sometimes flamboyantly but also discreetly, as in the dress above. Although feathers are often used to create lightness in clothes or suggest a carefree lifestyle McQueen’s dresses frequently reject this as the feathers are coated in paint or modified to reveal a harshness which is not immediately apparent in natural feathers. This unnerving technique was also used with other textiles such as flowers, shells, hair and metal but throughout this the careful tailoring continues to link his creations with their fashion predecessors.

The variety of works involved in the exhibition becomes overwhelmingly apparent in ‘The Cabinet of Curiosities’ room, which is filled, floor to ceiling, with hats, dresses, shoes and so many other objects that I had no idea where to look first. There was a skirt which relied on the shadow it created, a butterflied hat, silver jaws and chain mail to name but a few, with all the walls playing videos from many of the fashion shows these objects originally featured in. The inclusion of these catwalks allowed me to appreciate the objects as part of a larger setting and also reminded me of their original purpose, even when the practical seemed implausible. The shape of the armadillo heels is unusual but when looking at lines of models walking in them I was struck by how much more alien they appeared when worn as part of the human body. They altered the walk and posture of each model and therefore changed the ensemble completely. This effect was only enhanced by the numbers of models involved and it became clear that McQueen viewed his fashion shows as an essential aspect of each collection, therefore making them as theatrical as his clothing. Each piece cannot be truly appreciated in isolation.

The exhibition is open until 2nd of August and I cannot recommend it enough. It is a kaleidoscopic opening into the mind of a man whose imagination could finesse sublime creations but also reveal nightmarish visions.  Alexander McQueen always presented women as powerful, almost frightful, beings and as the exhibition title suggests he did not believe in commonplace, soft beauty. This combination of harshness, strength and aesthics exposes the accepted standards in fashion from within and forces the viewer to question their own visual ideals. Nevertheless, if you still need convincing about what you might see the V&A have provided further information about some of the intriguing objects on display. It’s also an excellent way to see the careful detailing present in all of McQueen’s work and appreciate the variety of skills involved. However, there has been unprecedented demand for tickets so make sure you plan a visit well in advance.

Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje

I began Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje with very few preconceived ideas or expectations aside from the fact that I had enjoyed The English Patient when I studied it for A level several years ago. As it is very rare to find a book which you can still love and enjoy after pulling apart and analysing each sentence I should not have been surprised at how carefully structured and intricately balanced Anil’s Ghost was. Nevertheless, this book quickly became my constant companion and I could almost not bear to finish it. It follows Anil, a forensic pathologist, who returns to the country where she was born, Sri Lanka, to investigate crimes against human rights for the UN during the ongoing civil war. She arrives in the country after a long absence, more of a foreigner than a citizen since she has forgotten how to speak Sinhalese and no friendly face awaits her. Whilst there she is teamed with a reputable archaeologist, Sarath, who shows her a selection of skeletons, three are centuries old but the other is much newer, buried with them in an attempt to disguise its provenance. Anil then uses this as a focal point for her investigation into the government’s actions as well as using its supposed antiquity as an excuse for when her curiosity becomes too dangerous.

However, while the immediate plot is fascinating, as it demonstrates how the civil war fractured Sri Lankan society in a myriad of ways, it was the individual anecdotes woven into the central narrative which affected me the most. They allowed Ondaatje to explore how grief can possibly be approached or acknowledged when a whole country is overwhelmed in tragedy and violence continues to engulf them. People still die from disease and old age even as their surroundings are overtaken by the war and they act as a reminder that normalcy continues to find a place in their world. These deaths still need to be grieved even as unexplained disappearances demand sorrow and lives adapt to new circumstances. One doctor is kidnapped from a luxurious life in private practice and forced to aid the rebels but finds his new life strangely satisfying while another exhausts himself through constant work at an overcrowded hospital, often being mistaken for a patient. An old man becomes blind and lives in near solitude in a forest monastery but he cannot escape the outside world forever. Anil’s encounters or experiences with these people and others are also intertwined with her memories of life in America and London – her thoughts of noisy bowling lanes accentuate the silence of the rice paddy she stands in and questions what normalcy actually means. The Sri Lanka that is described in the book is seen through this filter of Anil’s interpretation as she learns to accept her status as an outsider even when remembering her homesickness in the past for Sri Lanka. Ondaatje’s pride in his Sri Lankan heritage is apparent throughout the book as even at the darkest points in the narrative everyday Sri Lankan people are shown to be compassionate and have great inner strength which helps them survive the brutal period in their country’s history.

Anil’s Ghost is one of the few books that I was already planning to reread before I had finished it and I expect that I will have reread it at least once by the end of the year. Ondaatje’s writing is so subtle and his characters reveal themselves so carefully that I know I will discover more with every visit. Since finishing it I have continued to think about Ondaatje’s characters, and their experiences and eventual fates have continued to affect me. I would highly recommend it and am very happy to discuss it at great length if anyone is interested!