In the 1990’s, when the grandfather of the current Kim was North Korea’s Great Leader, I spent a week in Pyongyang working as an interpreter for the Italian delegation at a huge conference which was attended by most of the world’s nations. I have decided to note down what I remember now, before the place becomes a major tourist destination. (Not likely, I suppose, but more improbable things have happened recently.)
At the time, the only places from which you could fly to Pyongyang were Beijing, Moscow and Tirana. We got to Pyongyang via Beijing. There were so many more people travelling to Pyongyang than usual that Air Koryo, the North Korean airline was flying a shuttle service from Beijing to Pyongyang, which meant that all time-tables had been abolished. Whenever a plane arrived from Pyongyang, the people nearest the front of the huge huddle managed to leave.
The first thing I noticed on boarding the plane was that the stewardesses were stowing real crockery on the shelves in the kitchen area. This was very impressive. The second thing which became apparent was that some of the seats were stuck in a reclining position and several of the tray tables could not be folded back in place. The plane, however, promptly began to race down the runway and as it took off two loud sounds were heard. One was the crockery falling to the floor, and the second was a blast of muscular martial music streaming out of the loudspeakers. The music never let up, all the way to Pyongyang.
I recently came across these two short films by the French director Chris Marker (1921-2012) from Bestiaire (1990). The first one is a cat sleeping on a piano. And the second a series of owls, mostly swivelling their heads rather amazingly.
Looking at the cat, I realised for the first time that sleeping can be an art form.
Also, the next time I find it hard to sleep I am going to try to imagine being that cat and see what happens. (I shall stop short of lying down on top of the piano keyboard, however).
The owls go through a range of motion which is so far beyond our abilities as to seem aliens or objects (periscopes, perhaps).
Also, there is something about these films which seems to belong to another time, although though they are quite recent. Perhaps it is just the fact that they seem completely separate from our new multi-tasking customs. Marker focuses on one thing and doesn’t get distracted.
Chat écoutant la musique
An owl is an owl is an owl
If you have now become curious about how far an owl can swivel its head, look at this:
When I look at of the books in my library, the only thing I can remember in most cases is whether I have read them or not. Books in the second-largest category trigger one single anecdote or image and nothing else. One image which has been in my head for decades now comes from a book by Alberto Savinio (the brother of the painter Giorgio De Chirico), who was a fine writer and music critic, but of whom the only thing I recall is this passage he wrote about Gioacchino Rossini:
When, in Rossini’s symphonies, the allegro theme with the repeated little notes starts up, followed by one of his famous crescendos, I close my eyes and I see an ancient train with the steam engine in front, an ostrich-neck smoke stack with something like a pasta colander on top and the open-sided carriages behind, the curtains flapping and all full of fat Rossinis, paunchy and chuckling, who blow kisses to the crowd and shout out witticisms. The train starts giving off slow puffs, which then pick up pace, until they reach a steady, blistering speed, and the train races through the countryside, which is green with astonishment.
I often think about that when I hear Rossini’s music. Here are some of his famous crescendos. Try and see the train going by. Or get on and stand behind all the Rossinis as you go through the greenly astonished countryside.
Rossini retired from writing operas when he was 37. He wrote some other music, including some pieces which he called “Old Age Sins”, one of which is about peas (Ouf, les petis pois!).
He was famous for his witticisms. Just like the images from my books, I recall one in number. It’s about Wagner (look away now, Wagner fans):
“Mr. Wagner has some wonderful moments, but some awful quarters of an hour.”
(Note: the caricature of Rossini is by David Levine. You can see several other outstanding examples of his art here.)