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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Petite Meller lands on Planet Gong!

If bands could musically beget children then those children would, like their flesh and blood counterparts in the real world, display not just some of the musical characteristics of their 
parents but probably some of their inherent eccentricities as well. In which case the YouTube-proclaimed ‘Aryan pedo nightmare’ that is the French phenomenon Petite Meller would be the 
love-child of the hippy-dippy band Gong circa 1970.

Meller is 22 with an MA in philosophy, a fabulously distinctive and accented gallic vocal sound, which, when coupled with her Lady Gaga style theatrics and personal raison d’être to turn ‘libidinal unconscious dreams’ into reality while flirting with terrorism, race and Lolitaesque sex, make her hard to ignore. 

This anarchic approach to life, which The Guardian newspaper dismissed as pop with a ‘creepy aesthetic’, comes alive in Meller’s videos, where, usually scantily clad, cheeks rouged in pink blusher
and brandishing a variety of inappropriate props, she cavorts and her dances her way through a series of improbable landscapes that have included; a Kenyan village where she danced with the local school children and kissed a giraffe for Baby Love, New York City for Backpack, a geriatric rest home in Florida for Barbaric, and, most recently, she played with reindeers and the local tribesmen in the grassy plains of Mongolia for her single, The Flute. The Flute also sees Meller wearing a grass skirt and a pointy hat that, has, metaphorically at least, Gong written all over it.

While this global dancing has upset some who see it as ‘cultural appropriation’ and worry that Meller’s white flesh denotes a hidden racism when displayed next to her black co-dancers in videos like Baby Love, Meller undoubtably has a unique visual style that is rapidly becoming her own signature look and the only hidden message it really displays is a true celebration of being alive.

Now, having spent the last twelve or so releasing one infectiously dancey pop single after another, Meller has released Lil Empire, an equally quirky and contagious album. Almost every track is filled with a delirious pop sound; Milk Bath (cute and bonkers), America (like Baby Love, only more so), Argentina (softer, with the merest hint of Madonna’s La Isla Bonita), Geez (fab, play it to death), as well as all of her previously released singles. This is an album brimming with joie de vivre and a fabulous, almost gospelish pop sound that demands to be played loudly, again and again. Pointy hats optional. 

@ Nigel Wingrove 2016

The Flute -
Baby Love -
Barbaric -

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Life, Love and Keeling Over

Hiromi Kawakami’s first English language book was called Strange Weather in Tokyo and published in 2014, (in Japan it was titled The Teacher’s Briefcase) and was a gentle, touching, almost surreal and dreamlike story of a thirty something woman slowly falling in love with an unassuming retired school teacher in his seventies who she sees in a café where she eats regularly. The Nakano Thrift Shop treads a similar path. only more so.

In The Nakano Thrift Shop, Hiromi’s narrator is again a young woman, this time one who kind of, hesitantly, tentatively, possibly, falls in love with the twenty something Takeo, her co-worker at Mr Nakano’s thrift shop. Called Hitomi, our heroine and narrator, drifts, not so much through life but rather life drifts through her, as Kawakami’s small cast of characters; Mr Nakano, the roguish womanising thrift shop owner, Masayo, his artistic, doll-making, older sister, Sakiko, Mr Nakano’s sensual and beautiful lover, and the awkwardly shy Takeo, all gently impinge on Hitomi’s consciousness.

Kawakami has an extraordinarily way of drawing you into her etherial world, where, although nothing really happens, when they do, little transgressions or events cause ripples that spread seamlessly throughout the whole book and stay with you long after the story has finished. In Strange Weather in Tokyo it was the descriptions of food and the cherry blossom that heralds the arrival of spring that permeated, whereas in The Nakano Thrift Shop it is the inconsequential bric-a-brac and the minutiae of life that you eventually cherish. Until, as Mr Nakano’s sister says, we keel over;

Masayo wrapped up by saying, ’That’s why, when I haven’t heard from someone 
for a while, the first thing that occurs to me is that they might have just keeled over.’

Keeled over. I repeated Masayo’s phrase, in the same tone she had used.

‘You know?’ Masayo suppressed a chuckle as she peered into my face.

I-I don’t think he’s dead, I replied, shrinking into my seat.

Beautifully written and faultlessly translated by Allison Markin Powell, both Strange Weather in Tokyo and The Nakano Thrift Shop are a poignant, funny and effortless reminder of the pleasures to be found even in the banalities of modern life. 

The covers to both books are by the Japanese photographer Natsumi Hayashi who specialises in taking slightly spooky and etherial pictures of Japanese girls levitating and floating and whose imagery seems the perfect visualisation of Hiromi Kawakami’s novels. See more of her work here:

© Nigel Wingrove 2016

The Nakano Thrift Shop
Hiromi Kawakami

260 pages, Paperback
Portobello Books

Strange Weather in Toyko
Hiromi Kawakami

176 pages, Paperback
Portobello Books

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Tears in the Day, Screams in the Night

Chris Petit’s The Butchers of Berlin, is a brutal and disquieting take on a city and a people inured by years of terror, violence and vicious anti-semitism, who find survival in indifference, and sustenance in betrayal. 

Set in the death throes of the Third Reich during 1943, in an increasingly dangerous, demoralised
and bombed-out Berlin. Here, food and basic necessities are in short supply and the cities infrastructure is run less and less by German men and more and more by slave labour brought in from conquered nations. Slaves who would like nothing more than to hurt their German hosts and who provide a potential mass of suspects to the grisly murders at the books core. 

Centred on a detective and an SS judge assigned to investigate a series of extreme murders; the bodies had been frayed, butchered, and their skulls smashed to a pulp, the Butchers of Berlin, soon expands its remit to take in the regime’s round-ups and deportations of Berlin’s remaining Jews and the desperate attempts by some to evade capture and stay hidden from the authorities. Alongside the skinless bodies and vanished Jews, a German warden is also murdered, a police informer is found castrated, there is corruption in the Gestapo, and a counterfeiting racket is threatening chaos. 

It is though the inclusion of two young Jewish women, Sybil and Lore, in the story that truly evokes our sympathy after they find themselves at the mercy of the Gestapo and its local commander, the sadistic Gersten, who is happy to use torture and threats to cajole them into becoming ‘catchers’; Jews who seek out and betray other Jews that have become ‘U-boats’, that is Jews hiding as non-Jews. In particular, Petit brings in the real-life ‘catcher', the beautiful blonde Stella Kübler as a character. In reality Kübler's striking good looks and vivacious nature helped her ensnare and betray some 3000 of her fellow Jews to the Gestapo, who in turn nicknamed her ‘Blonde Poison’. 

It is in this mashing of real characters like Kübler, along with Goebbels, Himmler, and the agricultural minister and man behind the Blood and Soil (Blut und Boden) movement, Walter Darré, who all feature walk-on parts, with actual events and evocative depictions of wartime Berlin that jar with the books over-the-top emphasis on gross-out descriptions of butchery and slaughter. These forays into Grand Guignol territory tend to move the book away from a world war two crime thriller into straight horror territory. A pairing that weakens and detracts from the books strengths.

Chris Petit is unusual in that he combines writing with directing, particularly TV movies and short documentaries, and the first two thirds of The Butchers of Berlin reads like a well-paced thriller script, its short, punchy chapters making for concise scenes that in turn make for an exciting, gripping, story. Real, edge-of-your-seat stuff, or in this case, a page-turner. Then, a bit like a film that runs out steam, Petit spends the final third part of the story laboriously tying up all the strands while totally over-egging the blood and gore to an almost cartoonish level in the buildup to the books, or perhaps that should be, films, climatic ending. 

Petit is perhaps best known for the Northern Ireland based thriller, The Psalm Killer (1997), which, like The Butchers of Berlin, had at its core almost bestial descriptions of violence, though involving a biblically inspired killer operating during the Troubles rather than crazed Nazis. Yet the violence of 
the The Psalm Killer seemed, despite its graphic nature, to fit within the context of the story, yet in the Butchers of Berlin, where in reality the most appalling slaughter the world has ever seen was being carried out in the background, Petit’s horror seems not just crass but disrespectful of the real events and that is a shame because with a little, less is more, this could have been a great thriller instead of one that ran out of oomph!

© Nigel Wingrove 2016

The Butchers of Berlin
Chris Petit

496 pages,
Published by Simon & Schuster, UK 2016