There has been a lot of discussion lately on the value we put on art and its importance culturally and socially. With arts funding being cut, subsidies withdrawn, and academic courses in art and literature having their budgets reduced in favour of more financially lucrative schools of thought, we have to think seriously about the role the arts play in our lives, individually and collectively, and how far we should go to protect them. Add to the above the fact that many people now expect their music, film and writing for free, or at least as near as damn it, then surely the value is lessened and in danger of becoming lost.
The value of art is one of the main themes in Andrew Raymond Drennan’s latest novel ‘The Limits Of The World’. Set in present day North Korea, the central character is Han, a member of the Ministry of Communications who acts as a government sanctioned guide to the few foreign tourists who are allowed to visit his country. He makes sure they see the great and the good as the state decrees, and takes care they don’t witness any dissent which may have appeared spray-painted on the walls over night. He appears the model party man, but he has his own secrets to keep.
Han is a voracious, and courageous, reader who prefers his literature illicit, classic and western. In his private stash he hides the likes of Conrad, Dickens, Austen and Orwell, seditious material that could lead to his incarceration or death if discovered, yet he can’t let them go. Their value, for Han, is immeasurable, as they have become his reason for living, or at least living well. When he finds a like-minded soul in his apartment block in the form of cellist Mae, it excites him as much as it terrifies him as he has to fight against all his upbringing and instincts and learn to trust her as well as love her, which he does from the moment he realises she shares his passion.
Raymond Drennan’s North Korea feels not only like another place but another time. He helps the reader adjust to this unfamiliar landscape by having it seen at times through western eyes in the form of documentary makers Ben Campbell and Hal Huckley who are there undercover as tourists. They ask the questions that the North Koreans either can’t, or no longer feel the need to. Raymond Drennan has done over four-years of research for this book to make it as authentic as possible and it shows as what unfolds has the ring of truth about it, even at its most horrific.
Ben and Hal are also there to make us compare and contrast two political ideologies, not with the intent to state that one is better than the other, but rather to comment on both and show that no matter the ideal, the reality is you are dealing with individual human beings with all the hopes, fears, good and evil that entails. As matters progress the extremes of human nature are revealed, and it becomes clear that there is more that unites us than divides us, for better and for worse.
We’ve never had a classical musical interlude so far, but now seems the perfect moment to change that. When Han first meets Mae she is playing Dvorak’s ‘Concerto in B Minor’, itself an act of treason, so it seems appropriate to post a version here. This is the peerless Jacqueline du Pre:
I should point out that despite its serious topics ‘The Limits Of The World’ is in no way an overtly earnest read. It is quite beautifully written, with some wonderful turns of phrase and memorable imagery. Raymond Drennan finds poetry in the ordinary and displays a romanticism that cannot be denied. It is also a thrilling read, with more than a few ‘heart-in-the-mouth’ moments, especially as the story reaches its end, and it can be read on more than one level. However, the book is a serious undertaking and the questions it asks should make you think carefully.
What I was left with after finishing was that question from the top of the page, “How do we, and how should we, value art?”. For Han and Mae it is a matter of life and death, and they are willing to lose everything for arts sake. You have to ask yourself how far you would go to read your favourite writer or hear your favourite song? Does turning art into just another commodity to be bought and sold, and increasingly given away, mean it loses value rather than increases it? These are important questions with no easy answers, but they must be addressed, as you don’t miss something until it’s gone, and then it’s usually too late.
*If you’d like to know more about Andrew Raymond Drennan and ‘The Limits Of The World’ you can listen to the Scots Whay Hae! Podcast interview with him here.
All of these columns can now be found in one place over at Indelible Ink.
Next Month’s Novel: Scottish writing often gets accused of being too conservative in its ambition; often being historical fiction, gritty urban realism or Tartan Noir. Although all of those things have appeared on the pages of ‘Indelible Ink’, I hope there is evidence that the breadth of styles and themes is so much more than that.
As such it is always exciting when a new talent emerges with something new, and that’s what next month’s novel, ‘The Last Treasure Hunt’ by Jane Alexander, most definitely is. Described as “A modern media morality tale”, it is a mystery, which looks at the twin obsessions of fame and celebrity, and is one of most inventive novels you’ll have read in some time.