Once upon a time, I studied and wrote about narrative. Recently, I’ve blogged about many other topics: art, architecture, the British monarchy, intellectual property, and Wordle. But I’ve still been pursuing my narrative interest in the background. In this post, I’ll deal with three recent narrative works: the literary scholar Peter Brooks’ latest book, Seduced by Story; the current season of Stanley Tucci’s foodie travelogue In Search of Italy; and Santiago Mitre’s new courtroom drama Argentina 1985.
Brooks begins with the observation that “narrative seems to have become accepted as the only form of knowledge and speech that regulates human affairs.” Despite his background as a student of narrative, Brooks is unsettled by this trend, and complains that the stories told by everyone including corporations are often banal, often dishonest, and often all-powerful. What’s worse, they can be all three simultaneously. To use Aristotle’s terminology, pathos and ethos have vanquished logos. Brooks’ point is well-taken. As an economist, I give more credence to vote totals, macroeconomic data, and corporate balance sheets than to anecdotes. But I’m in the minority.
The subtitle of Brooks’ book, The Use and Abuse of Narrative, led me to expect he would discuss narrative in the contemporary context with which he begins. I was disappointed. In his last chapter, Brooks deals with the use of narrative in legal writing and thinking, which fascinated me. But all the other chapters treat narrative issues, such as the nature of the narrator, in nineteenth and early twentieth century novels by Proust, Flaubert, James, and others. Brooks’ belief is that developing intelligence in reading classic novels will carry over into intelligence in dealing with contemporary narrative.
In this instance I’m following the oft-criticized critical practice of complaining about the book the author didn’t write but should have. So be it. I recognize that Brooks is deeply invested in novels, having spent a long career writing about novels and having written two of his own. It is exceptional for someone in their mid-eighties to produce a book and, at that age, perfectly understandable for him to write about what he knows best. I confess that I’ve not read the novels Brooks writes about and, in my mid-seventies, I’m unlikely to develop an interest in nineteenth century literature. (Jennifer Szalai’s review in The New York Times is more sympathetic.)
On a societal level, while the novel is far from dead, it faces fierce competition from, and indeed larger audiences for, moving-image narrative such as film and television or streaming series. And that is where my interest lies.
A Culinary Homecoming
Stanley Tucci is a character actor whose performances in Margin Call and Spotlight, two movies I’ve used in my Narrative and Management course, I greatly admire. In Search of Italy, which chronicles this native son’s exploration of his homeland’s culinary bounty, is the only cheerful program on CNN. While some viewers might be satisfied with food and scenery and impressed with Tucci’s command of Italian, what makes the series exceptional is his use of stories. Tucci tells us a little of his own story, especially in the episode when he returns to his family’s roots in a Calabrese village, but as an actor he understands the importance of telling other people’s stories. We hear the stories of the people who prepare the meals Tucci always finds so delicious: cultivators or fisherfolk who establish restaurants, gastronomes who develop signature dishes, and young adults who reinvent their parents’ restaurants. The story I found most moving of all was of a collective of Calabrian restauranteurs who agreed to reject the Mafia’s attempts at extortion and indemnify one another when there were the inevitable reprisals.
This season’s four episodes are in Calabria, the toe of the boot; Puglia, the heel; the island of Sardinia, Italy’s “wild west;” and Liguria, the Italian Riviera. All four regions are close to the sea and mountainous, and among Italy’s least well-off, so the season’s meta-narrative is about how innovative people use local ingredients that are not considered the finest to nonetheless produce hearty and imaginative cuisine. Narrative meets rugged terroir, and the ensuing mixture is enthralling.
Resistance to Tyranny
Resistance to tyranny can be considered a cinematic genre. The resistance may be military or civilian and the outcome from the freedom-fighters’ point of view a success or a failure. Some films that come to mind are Spartacus, The Battle of Algiers, Z, All the President’s Men, Missing and No. Writer-director Santiago Mitre’s Argentina, 1985 is a distinguished addition to this genre. This “inspired by a true story” film, available on Amazon Prime, recounts the 1985 trail of the leaders of the military junta that was replaced by a democratically elected government in 1983. Argentina, 1985 deals with the trial of the junta leaders for their role in the “Dirty War,” in which their opponents were extra-judicially detained, tortured, and murdered. The movie is presented from the standpoint of prosecutors Julio Strassera and Luis Ocampo and a group of young lawyers who gathered evidence from victims and family of victims in the Dirty War.
The film is particularly moving in presenting the testimony of people who were tortured. Its climax is Strassera’s final argument, which he developed by consulting widely with his staff, his family, and even sotto voce, President Raul Alfonsin. Yet the film is not strictly a procedural and has a measure of warmth and humour in the portrayal of Strassera’s family. It has received very strong reviews and likely will be a serious contender for the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film.
The phrase “inspired by true events” is a license to reviewers and scholars to investigate how a film narrative selects from the complex story material – what is omitted, interpreted, and possibly falsified. The English-language media have not discussed this, but Argentinians have. An Argentinian friend sent me an article (available in translation here) by the Argentinian politician and writer Fernando Iglesias who complains that the film ignores the origins of the Dirty War, in particular the actions of the government of Juan and Isabel Peron from 1973 to 1976. I know as little about modern Argentinian history as about nineteenth century literature but, after watching Argentina, 1985 I am more likely to want to learn more about the former.
Unless you are interested in nineteenth century novels by Proust, Flaubert, and James, you can skip Seduced by Story. I strongly recommend In Search of Italy, especially if you like Italian food – who doesn’t? I watched Argentina, 1985 as part of my project to learn Spanish, but the film is great with subtitles, or even dubbed. I suggest seeing it before it’s nominated for the Oscar, which I’m certain it will be.