The Usonian "Unwrapped": 2022 in review
Reflections on a globetrotting year
It’s that time of year again—the end of it. 2022 was a compelling year, full of its share of joys and sorrows. For me, it was a year when the world got smaller, but more full.
Last year, the annual “The Usonian Unwrapped” debuted to chronicle the first year of the newsletter. This time around, I’ll try for a similar effect—summarizing the highlights on the blog and where you can find my other notable writings—as well as spotlight my favorite book I read this year—in addition to my favorite movie. This year, I’ll also add another category—favorite TV series—because for many, this medium is now one of the dominant ways we receive narratives.
As my fellowship in Cyprus wrapped up in July, this year the newsletter mostly focused on contributing additional chapters to The Cyprus Files. Such topics included adventures in language-learning, the wonders of the Troödos mountains, the majestic castles of Cyprus, and my unsuccessful search for the island’s elusive mountain goat. While my time in Cyprus is complete, the dispatches from that time will continue being filed into 2023. Stay tuned.
The Usonian Interviews comprised a series of five installments this year, featuring interviews with writers, poets, translators, and activists from around the globe. This year, The Usonian spoke with literary translator Lizzie Buehler, author and humorist Michael P. Branch, Cypriot poet Stephanos Stephanides, clean energy advocate Graham Turk, and fiction writer Samuel Bollen.
On to the exemplary texts!
Favorite film of 2022: Three Thousand Years of Longing
A film that came and went in the cinema this year was the endlessly fascinating Three Thousand Years of Longing, directed by George Miller. Based on an A. S. Byatt short story, the film concerns a “narratologist” (someone who studies folklore and storytelling) played by Tilda Swinton. After Swinton’s character travels to Istanbul to give a lecture, she picks up a glass bottle at the Grand Bazaar. When she opens the bottle, a djinn (Idris Elba) appears and offers to grant her wishes. But, unwilling to fall victim to the tricks of genies in the stories she’s studied, she instead asks the djinn to tell her the story of his life, which turns out to be a tragedy of classic literary weight.
Filled with sumptuous visuals, costumes, and unpredictable tales set in the Bosporous and the Near East, Three Thousand Years of Longing was reportedly a passion project for George Miller, the eccentric director of the Mad Max movies and um, Happy Feet and Babe: Pig in the City. Though the film did not receive a whole lot of press, Three Thousand Years of Longing seems destined to belong to the genre of unmarketable but beloved and visually stunning movies with philosophical themes, like Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain (2006) and Tarsem Singh’s The Fall (2006). And while the movie deviates from conventional Hollywood structure, which might prove a barrier to entry for some, I recommend the film and will return to it in the future.
Favorite book I read in 2022: Sophus Helle’s Gilgamesh
“There was a man/who saw the deep, the bedrock of the land,/ who knew the ways and learned all things.” —The opening of the Epic of Gilgamesh as translated by Sophus Helle.
On the subject of ancient stories, my favorite book I read in 2022 was Sophus Helle’s 2021 English translation of Gilgamesh. The Babylonian legend about an ancient hero that is one of the oldest stories ever discovered, Helle’s translation renders the ancient poem into modern accessible prose. Helle is something of a genius—he finished his Ph.D. in 2020 and previously assisted his father on a translation of Gilgamesh from Akkadian/Babylonian into Danish.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the poem’s story is Gilgamesh’s travel to the underworld, where he encounters a demigod named Uta-Napishti who recounts a tale from before the Flood. In fact, Uta-Napishti shares many of the same characteristics as the Biblical Noah. When the gods decide to wipe out the human race with a flood, a god asks Uta-Naphishti to build a giant boat and gather the species he can to rescue them from destruction. When Gilgamesh was rediscovered in cuneiform-tablet form in the 1800s, the presence of the flood narrative caused quite a stir. Did it suggest there really was a flood? Did it lend credence to, or detract from, the possible historical basis for such events in the Bible?
Such questions, of course, can never be answered, and instead remain the fodder for crackpot documentaries on the History Channel. But it is really interesting how the themes of Gilgamesh—pride, love, grief—echo into other narratives, forming the basis of human interests and emotions described in literature. Helle’s masterful essays accompanying the text provide the context necessary for understanding what we know about the Akkadian/Babylonian world and the way the epic was rediscovered and cobbled together from various copies discovered in the ruins of an ancient library, where the epic served as the training material for student scribes. Hey, maybe in several thousand years your old term paper on The Great Gatsby might be the only reference to that book for future scholars to puzzle over!
Favorite TV series of 2022: Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep
I came to Irma Vep (2022) because I was familiar with director Olivier Assayas from his excellent 2010 miniseries, Carlos, which depicted the life of notorious international terrorist Carlos the Jackal. The French director’s quirky taste breathes through this latest effort, which is in effect a remake of his first (and breakout) feature film, Irma Vep (1996). This is almost a triple irony because both Irma Vep movies are about efforts to remake a classic French silent film serial by Louis Feuillade called Les Vampires (1915-1916). That original story was not about bloodsuckers but a gang of criminals who called themselves “The Vampires.” (“Irma Vep,” it should be stated, is an anagram for the word “Vampire”; in all three stories the name serves as the alias of the central figure in the production, a femme fatale who wears a catsuit, the cinematic antecedent for other sexualized cat-burglars, such as Catwoman).
While convoluted, the layering of all these threads is a source of comedy for Irma Vep the show, a meta commentary upon meta commentary about the cinematic process. In both the film and series the actress playing Irma Vep (Maggie Cheung in the film, Alicia Vikander in the show) is subject to the whirlwinds accompanying their stardom; both endure a mental trance when they don the catsuit, which causes them to prance around Parisian rooftops at night and consider stealing a necklace.
In both properties, the film’s fictional neurotic director endures a mental breakdown. Named as the same character in the show and movie (indeed, in the show he’s consciously remaking the movie he made with Maggie Cheung), the layering creates a fascinating knot to untangle.
Adding humor to the whole enterprise in the show is that the remake of Les Vampires doesn’t seem to be very good at all, as seen in vignettes that flow in and out of the story of the production. The director’s earnest attempt to remake the silent film as an exact replica seems doomed to fail in presenting the story for a modern audience. Meanwhile, flashbacks to the creation of Feuillade’s original production (using the same cast as the serial’s second remake) add additional layers, mostly regarding how the uncompromising auteur endangers his team to achieve his vision.
Each episode of Irma Vep is about an outrageous crisis; in one, the difficult actor brought in to play the villain reveals he has a drug addiction and refuses to act without the staff acquiring him more supply; in another, the auteur director goes missing and a MCU-type director is brought in to finish the shoot, but with a lot more drones.
All this intricate plotting alludes to the chaos of the filmic process—by the time the series wraps, most of the complications evaporate, like a bad dream, and the players part ways to jump to their next opportunity.
Halfway in French and English, there’s never quite been a show with the intertextuality and ambition of Irma Vep. I enjoyed every minute of it.
In case you missed it
It was an eventful year for my work! I published two short stories in 2022. “Silent G,” the story of a man on a quest to discover the truth of his mother-in-law’s tales of war-torn Varosha, Cyprus, was published in the twenty-ninth volume of Phaneromenis70’s “Delivering Views.” The series seeks to publish perspectives on Cyprus by people who are outsiders to the island’s unusual context. The publication was a fitting summation of my work on the island.
“Falling,” a fabulist retelling of Frank Lloyd Wright’s construction of Fallingwater, was published in Flying Ketchup Press’ speculative fiction anthology Tales from the Deep. Last month, the story was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. The story was written during my MFA program, and it was long in development, so it’s a wonderful surprise for it to achieve that distinction.
In the nonfiction category, some of the more interesting pieces I wrote this year included a review essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books “On Privacy, Paranoia, and Genre,” a review of Karen Han’s new book, Bong Joon Ho: Dissident Cinema, for The Brooklyn Rail, and a little history profile in Princeton Alumni Weekly on “a champion for inner space”—the inimitable geologist Harry Hess, one of the creators of plate tectonics theory, who supported a questionable plan during the Cold War to drill through the Earth’s mantle.
I was also proud to give lectures about my research across the world—on Limassol at the CVAR Museum in Nicosia, on Doxiadis Associates in Nigeria at the AISU Conference in Turin, and on Varosha at the MGSA conference in Toronto. The opportunities to share my work was a huge privilege, and to do so in such wonderful places was an added bonus.
I am grateful to have met so many wonderful people on my travels and literary adventures. Despite the ill winds that continue to blow over the world, I wish the best to my readers for a better 2023.
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