Roving thoughts and provocations

A Music of Overpowering Affection

Geoffrey O’Brien

Julieta Cervantes/BAM

With the heavy lifting of narration shifted elsewhere, Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s opera David et Jonathas is free to devote itself to almost nothing but high points. Characters and situations are isolated and offered up for consideration, giving us more a series of disjunctive pictures than a linear enactment of the whole story. Everything is of maximum intensity. Within a few moments of the beginning of the Aix-en-Provence Festival production of David et Jonathas now playing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the music had taken over with overpowering thoroughness.

A Khmer Rouge Goodbye

Stéphanie Giry

Stéphanie Giry

It could have been the setting of any Cambodian notable’s funeral. There was a large wooden house. There was a tall, terraced pyre in the dirt yard. The case for the coffin was topped with a silhouette of Angkor Wat. But this was Malai, a tidy little town in Cambodia’s northwest that for many years has been an enclave for Khmer Rouge holdouts. And the elder being commemorated was Ieng Sary, Pol Pot’s foreign minister and a member of his standing committee, who died last month at eighty-seven while on trial for assorted mass crimes before a UN-backed tribunal.

Clearing the Men’s Room for Thatcher

Jonathan Mirsky

Pierre-Antoine Donnet/Getty Images

Why was I invited to Margaret Thatcher’s funeral? I had never been a parliamentary journalist. My career was as a foreign correspondent in China and Hong Kong. Her visits to China were brief and unsatisfactory. But I did have a little history with Mrs. Thatcher, including four personal encounters. Here’s how they happened.

The Unfinished Race

Hugh Eakin

Dick Raphael/Getty Images

Runners who have completed the historic race from the village of Hopkinton, in Massachusetts’s Middlesex County, to downtown Boston, 26.2 miles east, invariably have their own favorite parts of the course and those they dread. But it seemed beyond any runner’s imagination that the Boston Marathon finish line itself—the final moment of triumph—could turn into a nightmare, a zone of horror and devastation that stood the entire logic of the race on its head.

MoMA’s Act of Vandalism

Martin Filler

Giles Ashford

The only surprising thing about the Museum of Modern Art’s announcement in April that it intends to demolish Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s American Folk Art Museum of 1997–2001—an architectural gem that abuts the Modern’s campus on Manhattan’s West 53rd Street—to make way for yet another MoMA addition is that this deplorable decision took so long to occur. When in 2011 the Folk Art Museum was compelled to sell its decade-old building because of the worldwide economic crash that had caused its default on $32 million in bonds that financed the $18.4 million scheme, seasoned observers fully expected that the superb structure’s days were numbered.

The Japan Beneath the Snow

Ian Buruma

Keisuke Katano/The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Swept away in the 1940s by a Japanese version of chauvinistic ethnography, the photographer Hiroshi Hamaya embarked on his extraordinary documentation of rural life in the so-called Snow Country of northeastern Japan. The results, however dubious in origin, were astonishing. A world that is now lost forever still lives in his photographs. And it has a stark beauty that is utterly distinctive. In the ice and snow of Niigata prefecture, Hamaya found the style that would make him famous. One of the main themes, apart from rice farming and Shinto rituals, is the snow itself.

Tibet: The CIA’s Cancelled War

Jonathan Mirsky

Lhamo Tsering Collection

For nearly two decades after the 1950 Chinese takeover of Tibet, the CIA ran a covert operation designed to train Tibetan insurgents and gather intelligence about the Chinese, as part of its efforts to contain the spread of communism around the world. Though little known today, the program produced at least one spectacular intelligence coup and provided a source of support for the Dalai Lama. On the eve of Richard Nixon’s historic 1972 meeting with Mao, however, the program was abruptly cancelled, thus returning the US to its traditional arms-length policy toward Tibet.

The Great American Bender

Charles McGrath

George/Getty Images

Before John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra, sex in American novels—polite novels, anyway—was mostly adulterous, not something that proper married women engaged in, or if they did, they weren’t known to enjoy it. Appointment is a genuine love story, charged with eros but stripped of sentimentality, and the relationship between the Englishes is more convincing and more satisfying than that of, say, Gatsby and Daisy in The Great Gatsby, or Henry and Catherine Barkley in A Farewell to Arms. Though unfaithful to her, Julian can’t stop loving Caroline, and after O’Hara devotes a whole chapter to her intimate thoughts and sexual explorations before marriage, the reader can’t help falling a little in love with her, too. Caroline, for her part, reflects at the end of the book: “He was drunk, but he was Julian, drunk or not, and that was more than anyone else was.”

Hi! I’m Fang!’ The Man Who Changed China

Perry Link

Forrest Anderson/Getty Images

In China in the 1980s, the word renquan (“human rights”) was extremely “sensitive.” Few dared even to utter it in public, let alone to champion the concept. Now, nearly three decades later, a grassroots movement called weiquan (“supporting rights”) has spread widely, and it seems clear that China’s rulers are helpless to reverse it. Even people at the lowest levels of society demand their rights. No one brought about this dramatic change single-handedly, but arguably no one did more to get it started than Fang Lizhi, the Chinese astrophysicist, activist, and dissident, who died a year ago this week. We were friends for many years; here are eight of my favorite memories of him.

Egypt in the Raw

Yasmine El Rashidi

Rene Burri/Magnum Photos

In 1966, a little-known young Egyptian named Sonallah Ibrahim self-published his experimental first novel, That Smell, at a small printing press in downtown Cairo. It was a time of crisis and change in Egypt, as the country negotiated a transition from British occupation to Nasserism, much as today it struggles to deal with a shift from the Mubarak era to an emergent Islamist authoritarianism. Ibrahim, a former student activist and journalist who had spent five years in prison on charges related to his activity in the Communist party, was sensitive to the omnipresence of the state in everyday life, but also to the inability of Arabic literature to express and capture that reality. That Smell—now published in English in a brilliant new translation by Robyn Creswell—was Ibrahim’s breathtakingly subversive answer to this problem and met with immediate censorship.