Diving in a Dutch film: Nova Zembla.

Nova Zembla

So it was New Year’s eve and I was spending the night in the Netherlands with a Dutch family. We ate oliebollen – if you don’t know what it is you’re missing the greatest fried sweet after Spanish churros – and plaid sjoebak,  which helped me to release all the bad vibes from 2015. Then we had to wait until 12am to open the champaign and, naturally, watching a movie was the best idea. Because technology is brilliant – when it cooperates – we couldn’t quite work out how to put the English subtitles on. Finally I said I didn’t mind watching the film – Nova Zembla – in Dutch – even if I had just started studying the language.

So, did I enjoy it even if I missed 100% of the dialogues? Of course! Let’s not forget that cinema started as a silent art…

1. The plot. You don’t need dialogue to understand the plot. In most films – unless they are like Saraband – the characters movements and the change of setting tells us what’s going on in a clear way. For example, in Nova Zembla  there’s a scene in which the characters are being chased by a massive polar bear and, as everyone in the room, I was suffering for them – I am not a psycho!

2. The characters.  The human face is a great map of expressions and if the actors know how to do their job properly we get if they are happy, needy, angry… It’s also easy to see who is the good guy – if he’s clean and seems stupidly innocent – and the bad guy – dirty, a messy beard, giving suspicious looks over his shoulder… etc.

3. Landscape and photography. Nova Zembla  tells the story of a ship and her crew during the 16th century. The visual aspect of the film was impressive and I really enjoyed being trapped inside the ship’s gutters or wandering in the vast whiteness of the Pole North. Images are breathtaking on their own: when watching The Revenant I could barely understand Tom Hardy’s accent yet the film traumatised me all the same.

4.Chance to feel smart. When you’re starting with a new language you obviously haven’t acquired the necessary skills to understand a full lenght movie. Yet it’s so much fun trying to ‘tame’ your ear to the new sounds. And when you recognise small words you get all excited – it’s very rewarding.

5. Let’s explore. We’re so used to the American and perhaps English way of doing films that I think we forget there is a complete different cinema world out there. It’s so interesting watching what other countries do, how they tell stories, how they incorporate their own culture and history to their plots… Nova Zembla narrates a discovery trip, because Dutch people were intrepid sailors in the 16th century. We can also have an insight of the way of living, the way the percieved religion, love and morality… – for example, the wide neckline of the female protagonist might suggest that the Netherlands were in no way as puritanical at people in 16th’s Spain, for example.

So defenitely, if you love cinema and you’re also learning a new language, I would encourage you to start watching films from that country or culture as soon as possible. Don’t be afraid of getting lost without subtitles, because it can be great fun. Check out the trailer and see by yourself!

Do you watch movies in different languages? Have you been brave enough to watch them without subtitles?



Die Hard and the Germans



Last week Alan Rickman left us – he was one of my favourite actors ever. Because yes, I’m  the kind of people who prefer a charismatic villain than the always boring good guys. That is why I loved him as a Snape in the Harry Potter films, for example or as the perverted Judge Turpin in Sweeney Todd. Last Friday I watched his first debut movie, which turned out to be the first of another famous saga, Die Hard.


Die Hard is an action film and not something I would have choose to watch before, to be honest. Although I have to say that despite its many clichés, I enjoyed it, specially because in the old days the action scenes were really filmed – no computers but flesh and hard floors. For example, poor Alan Rickman was really thrown no less than 20 meters down at the end of the film – which explains why his horror face seems so believable.

I’m sure many of you are familiarised with the plot, that narrates the adventures of John McLean, a NY cop that finds himself locked up in a luxurious skycraper taken by a band of thieves. We have here a young Bruce Willis.

Does his character’s surname – McLean – suggest some Scottish heritage?

The skycraper’s owner is no other than one Mr Takagi – he has the same surname than one of Japanese teachers. When I first saw the character I thought he would be one of the evil ones. Japan was at war with US and they paid for that as in most of US’ movies Japanese guys are crazy assholes – sorry for the word. Kill Bill could be an example.

But no, in Die Hard it gets clear from the very beginning that Mr Takagi is a powerless victim. His whole story is narrated in a few lines – child of Japanese immigrants in US that made himself through scholarships in different Californian universities. So he’s more American than Japanese in the end…

Then the thieves appear. An attractive Alan Rickman followed by a tribe of –mostly– super tall, blond, long-haired men. At the beginning I thought they were Russian. In American movies the bad guys are Japanese… or Russian… or Spaniards. However, when they started speaking I discovered they were… Germans. No less.

Now, I have to thank the scripwriter of this movie, who at least took the bothers to make his characters to speak real German – which always adds some veracity to the screen. They argue with each other in this language, and it’s wonderful to hear Alan Rickman giving them orders in German with his sharp voice. I say I feel grateful because – sadly – in many US movies they don’t really care about other languages apart from English. In The Reader, an adaptation of a novel that is set in Germany, there is one scene that struck me: the main character reading from an English book. Not that German people cannot read English – not at all, I’m jealous of all my German friends for their perfect English accents – but it was obvious that in that particular story at that particular moment the chacter should have been reading a book in his mother tongue. Not mentioning US films set in Ancient Greece where you can see their old manuscripts… in English as well. It completely blows up the great lie that cinema is.

Now, I was wondering, why are the thieves/criminals/terrorists in US movies always Asian or European? Why US does not have its own thieves – as we all have? Why do they feel this urgency of ‘importing’ the bad guys into his movies?

As a curiosity, in the German version of Die Hard the thieves are not German – of course not – but members of the IRA. Don’t you think that’s wonderful? Enemies always come from far, far away, so we don’t feel specially sad when Bruce Willis breaks their necks or throws them through the window of the 38th floor.

But the best thing is that the most German person in the movie is indeed… our Bruce Willis. Born in Germany from a German mother.

That’s how he defeated the super evil Hans Gruber/Alan Rickman?





‘In a Pig’s Ear, Sweet Pie!’ – why Idiolects are great fun.


‘You look fantastic!’ she said when she finished. ‘I could eat you!’

And then: ‘I’m going to miss you, Pat Puss, you know! So much.’

‘I love you, Charlie. I’ll write every day, I promise.’

‘Kiss me! Even if I’m Irvin’s and always be forever, I still want you to kiss me!’

Yummy breasts of all time as little tongue goes travelling down belly-town! And other secret places!
Such squelch and sweat the world has never seen! God! – Why couldest not invent a sweeter way to melt and merge? Dickies which might squirt Chanel, or weenies which secrete rosewater?

Breakfast on Pluto, by Patrick McCAbe

This is probably my favourite quote from Breakfast on Pluto, a book I read a few weeks ago. I haven’t watched the film adaptation yet – although I find Cillian Murphy very attractive as a woman, I’ve to say. I’ve read the book is more explicit than the movie so I don’t think I’m going to enjoy the movie that much. Specially because what I’ve loved most in this book is Pussy’s nerve, if you take that from the story, what else is left?

In this blog I’ve talked a lot about different languages, but what about idiolects? An idiolect is a way of speaking associated with an individual. Because yes, we all have our own way to speak. You might not have realised that, but if you’re a writer then you probably know how challenging – and fun, and frustrating – is to give your character a voice. That’s the idiolect. And it’s unique, and sometimes recreating it on the page might be as difficult as learning a foreign language.

Pussy Braden was born as an orphan – he might have been the son of a Catholic priest and his teenager servant – and grew up in the fictional city of Tyreelin. He has always known he’s a woman and also that he wants to find her mother – wherever she is, or whoever she might be.

Horrible things happen to our poor Pussy – the IRA and the Catholicism happen to him, I must say – but she narrates everything with a delicious insolence. Sometimes she seems too optimistic, other times her happiness feels like fresh make-up covering a ninety-year-old face. It’s all pure comedy, because the sadness is there, and the loneliness, they never left.

Her way of speaking is very peculiar. In this quote she explains how she was in the newspaper after being in a disco where the IRA put a bomb – and now the police thinks she’s a member of the IRA as well just because she’s Irish.

To this day I regret that I didn’t keep the Daily Mirror and the Sun, for I didn’t look at all bad either! (…) I’d see the bold black type: ‘Sweet Smile of a Killer!’, which was hilarious, it really was, particularly with the glazy look I had in my eyes and my clothes ripped to shreds. Especiallt as I say, my Christian Diors! Which they had arrows pointing to so you could see my hairy legs (I’m afraid I hadn’t bothered to shave them that night!)

Breakfast on Pluto, by Patrick McCAbe

Exclamations: She doesn’t spare these. She uses them as some people use salt or sugar on everything. This made – to me – her language artificially happy. Like if she pretended to narrate her story all excited, bouncing up and down with bright eyes.

Dashes and brakets: Those are also used a lot to allow Pussy digression. These are mostly anecdotes and funny impressions that contribute to the comedy in the narrative.

Dialogues: Pussy tells us at the beginning she’s writing her story as a sort of therapy for her psychiatrist, who is encouraging her as he seems to think she’s a good writer. Yet she introduces dialogues now and then. As a writer, I always struggle with this. Is it realistically enough? When I write my diary I just ramble, and I never quote what other people have said to me – I think. But my diary is not something readers would find interesting and a book has to be of some interest. So in this case I think we can ‘forgive’ Pussy. The dialogues are also embedded inside the text instead of being separated in different paragraphs, which made them look more casual and part of Pussy’s own voice.

Chapters’ titles: I absolutely loved the fact that each chapter had its own funny titlel. Pussy’s personality shines through these. Some of the best ones:

  • Hysterical Jokes and Greeting Visitors in a Skyblue Negligee!
  • In a Pig’s Ear, Sweet Pie!
  • Vicky likes Salmon!!

Vignettes: The story is narrated in very short chapters – vignettes – which correspond to a single scene. I found the same in another Irish book – Reading in the Dark – and wondered if it might be considered a feature in Irish prose. I’ve to say I like books with short chapters. It makes me feel I read quicker and everything flows more pleasant. I’m fan of the old ‘lo bueno, si breve, dos veces bueno’ which basically means that if something is good and short is better. At least, as a writer, I like to keep my things ‘short’ – so no 100000 pages novels for me, thanks.

What is real?: The fictional ‘vignettes’ were written by Pussy as a therapy. But along with these there are also pages that preceed and also act as an interlude for these. There Pussy’s voice is the same – slightly more contended, perhaps? – but presumably narrates the real current events that are happening in her life. However, these ‘real’ interludes stop appearing when Pussy tells us how she set fire to the church in Tyreelin and the story finishes in vignettes. I think this subtle game is very interesting as it makes the character more real and less of a caricature  – she might have been ended up by being so if we only had the vignettes. Mixing formats, also, is something I find very original and it also allows the writer to play with different registers and times.

The Irish narrator: Is there such a thing? Apparently what defines ‘the Irish narrator’ is his/her needless eloquence… At least that’s what my supervisor, Eoghan Walls, told me. Pussy is definitely needless eloquent and also quite strident. Yet instead of disliking him I grew fond of him chapter by chapter.

The IRA and the church: These are two things that make Pussy’s life worse. The IRA is always around, killing, and they are violent against the British but also to those Irish who they think disloyal. This is not a sympathetic portrairt. The church, on the other hand, also symbolises Pussy’s struggles. First because he might have been orphaned because he was born from a Catholic priest. Second, because being a transexual woman doesn’t set well with Catholicism anyways. Abortion is also discussed in the book as something that needs to be more accesible for Irish women. Sadly, Pussy knows that he’s orphan also because his mother never wanted him thus she abandoned him. And that feeling of neglect is his curse in life.

Secondary characters: Pussy is telling us her life in first person, and her voice is so intense that there’s little room for more characters. I don’t think the reader minds this, because she’s very engaging. The other characters are just secondary, mere shadows appearing now and then, although she manages to describe them very well and offer the reader a glimpse of their personality – like her childhood friends, Irwin and Charlie. Although, considering that Pussy is an unreliable narrator, you always wonder until what point her perception can be – or not – accurate.

I want to finish with the end of the book, in which Pussy expresses her most impossible wish – to become a mother. I found it weirdly tender.

(…) to wake up in the hospital with my family all around me, exhausted after my ordeal maybe, but with a bloom like roses in my cheeks, as I stroke his soft and tender head, my little baby, watching them as they beam with pride, in their eyes perhaps a tear or two – who cares! – hardly able to speak as they wipe it away and say: ‘He’s ours.’

Breakfast on Pluto, by Patrick McCAbe

‘Have you read it? Have you ever attempted to create an idiolect for your characters?

My Sweet Cumbrian Monster

Cumbrian Spider

Recently I moved to a room in Galgate (AKA The End of The World) in an old cottage close to the river. One morning I got up at 6.30 to run in the canal. The gods decided to reward my strong will – the canal is the wettest, coldest, darkest and muddiest place one can imagine – with a beautiful sight first thing in the morning. A 4 -inches spider in all is hairy glory.

But I’m a lovable, pacific person. So I took a tupperware which was not mine – obviously – trapped her – it had female vibes – and threw her out of the window. Gently.

Normally I would have screammed as hell at the sight of such a monstruous arachnid – or any arachnid in fact – but when you’ve woken up so early to run you just want to do it and nothing – not even a 4 -inches hairy spider – is going to get on your way.

Next day, she was waiting for me in the same place of our first encounter. The right side of the bathtub.  I decided to call my male flatmate thinking that maybe he could spare me the tension of taking the spider while thinking she can scape at any moment and run with its hairy legs all over my body – brrr. But he turned out to be more scared than me and stood in the toilet’s treshold trembling while I – again – took the spider and threw it out of the window again.

Two days later I discovered TWO identical spiders in the kitchen. One close to the rubbish can and the other one enjoying the views beside the window. I took them out.

The morning after, I opened the door to go out to university… and guess who took the chance to run inside… my friend, the big hairy spider!

I surrendered to the evidence. Our life paths were connected.

Next week I gave the spiders names. They’re an amorous couple and they are called Cordelia and Paco. My landlady says they’re just looking for holes in the house to hibernate and she promised me they won’t go inside my room.

Yesterday I saw a slightly smaller spider in the bathtub again… Cordelia and Paco’s offspring? My heart was full with tenderness and I had to do a strong effort to content the tears.

(Still, I must confess I keep having recurrent arachnid nightmares…)