Canongate, £16.99, 228pp. £15.29 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room, By Geoff Dyer
Friday 10 February 2012
Andrei Tarkovsky's film Stalker, released in the USSR in 1979, radiates an enduring sense of mystery and disquiet. I have seen it five times, though viewing can feel like a penance. Tarkovsky does not set out to entertain: some of his shots last up to seven minutes. The plot? Three middle-aged men undertake a journey through an industrial wasteland in search of an elusive place called the Zone, where the normal laws of life are mysteriously suspended. With its watery images of disused chemical factories and silted urban waterways, the film cries out for exegesis. What does it mean? Geoff Dyer first saw Stalker in 1981 while a student at Oxford; 30 years on, Zona is his non-fiction appraisal of the film and what it means to him today.
On one level, Dyer notes, Stalker can be read as an allegory of Everyman who sets out in quest of salvation in this life. The film is fraught with portents of death and the mystery of life after death. Tarkovsky's Russian Orthodox faith suffused his imagery with an icon-like poetic stillness.
Much of the film was shot in the industrial edgelands round the (predominantly Lutheran) Estonian capital of Tallinn. The Red Army had detonated warehouses and hydro power plants in their retreat from Tallinn in 1941; half a century on, Tarkovksy used them as locations.
My mother, who grew up in Tallinn in the 1930s, was within earshot of the detonations and can still recall a sequence of far-off booms. The film is, among other things, a hymn to industrial sumplands and sites where urban meets pastoral. In such places, Tarkovsky found beauty rather than a jagged ugliness.
Along the way, Dyer commends the director's uncanny gift of foresight. Stalker was shot ten years before the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, when radioactive dust settled over the Ukranian flatlands round the wrecked nuclear core. The Zone could almost serve as a mirror-image of the exclusion zone round Chernobyl's abandoned power plant, where inhabitants still bear the tell-tale mark of cerium pallor and have taken to vodka with a vengeance. In this sense, Tarkovsky was not only a visionary and poet, "he was also a prophet (of a future that now lies in the past)." The stalker himself, with his expression of "furrowed anxiety" and "generalised unhappiness", guides people through a closed-off terrain pregnant with danger and forebodings of nuclear meltdown and the Gulag.
Lars von Trier's film Antichrist is dedicated to Tarkovsky, but Dyer rightly descries it as "repellent and silly". The grasshopper attention spans of cinema-goers these days are woefully ill-suited to Stalker. Tarkovsky contrived some of the most beautiful extended shots in film history; he must be anathema to video pop promo directors like Guy Ritchie and Danny Boyle.
In a typical aside, Dyer muses on his childhood visits to an "abandoned, brambly" train station in Cheltenham and his fantasy (as yet unfulfilled) of having sex with two women simultaneously. The revelation might strike readers as vulgar, yet Tarkovsky's Zone is supposed to have the power to fulfil a person's innermost desire: why not (Dyer suggests impishly) that of three-way sex? Throughout, the writing is of an aphoristic grace and concision, suffused with humour and a delight to read.
Ian Thomson's 'The Dead Yard: a story of modern Jamaica' won the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize 2010
Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year
TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Indonesia executions: Death row British grandmother Lindsay Sandiford will refuse to wear a blindfold when she faces firing squad
- 2 The man who filmed the Freddie Gray video has been arrested at gunpoint
- 3 How the language you speak changes your view of the world
- 4 The top 50 cities for young people to live in
- 5 Uploading pictures to find out how old you are gives Microsoft the right to post them wherever they want
The C-Word - review: Sheridan Smith shines in a warm, honest adaptation of Lisa Lynch's book about living with cancer
X-Men Apocalypse: First look at Jubilee and Jean Grey played by Game of Thrones star Sophie Turner
American Horror Story: Hotel Angela Bassett set to make 'lots of trouble' with Lady Gaga in season 5
Game of Thrones season 5 episode 4 - review: Sansa is in danger of becoming another footnote in Westeros' bloody history
Adam Sandler's The Ridiculous Six: Make-up 'used to darken skin of actors to make them look Native American'
Over 50,000 families shipped out of London boroughs in the past three years due to welfare cuts and soaring rents
EU asylum policy is 'a direct threat to our civilisation', says Nigel Farage
The Rothschild Libel: Why has it taken 200 years for an anti-Semitic slur that emerged from the Battle of Waterloo to be dismissed?
General Election 2015: SNP and its activists 'openly racist' towards the English, Farage says
General Election 2015: UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power, Labour warns
Schools forced to act as 'miniature welfare states' with teachers buying underwear and even haircuts for poor pupils