Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Stitches in time: the tailor in fiction

It's with creeping inevitably that I pick up from last week's post and the reference to Louis Garrel's short The Little Tailor to search out further tailors in fiction, starting with The Tailor of Panama. John le Carré's 1996 novel, inspired by Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana, was filmed in 2001, providing a star turn - and a break from Bond - for Pierce Brosnan.

Brosnan's character has been discarded by MI6 in Panama, where he leans on Geoffrey Rush's tailor to find a way to secure his return to the fold. This tailor is typical of what we come to expect in screen depictions of the type: grasping, out-of-his-depth, a little bit sleazy.

The archetype is, of course, described by Georges Simenon in Les Fiançailles de Monsieur Hire (1933), filmed by Patrice Leconte in one of my favourite adaptations of the Belgian author's work. Michel Blanc stars as the eponymous M Hire, who spies on his beautiful neighbour, played by Sandrine Bonnaire, and is incriminated in the killing of another young woman nearby. In Anna Moschovakis' translation (for the 2007 NYRB edition), '... one sensed in him neither flesh nor bone, nothing but soft, flaccid matter, so soft and so flaccid that his movements were hard to make out.'

Like Simenon's tailor, Garrel's is Jewish and, as the young director noted, anachronistic. (I like, too, Garrel's admission that he tried to make a longer, feature, film but he cut and cut, and was left with 45 minutes.) For timeless tailors who have given us a byword for cutting down pretension we look to Hans Christian Andersen's swindlers, who pose as weavers in The Emperor's New Clothes (1837).

But my favourite fictional tailors come in Rohinton Mistry's wondrous A Fine Balance (1995), starting with unfortunate young widow Dina Shroff, who is encouraged to set up her own tailoring business to maintain her independence. She hires villagers Ishvar and his nephew Om and makes a quilt from the workers' scraps.

Later on it evokes memories of their time together '... that's the rule to remember, the whole quilt is much more important than any single square.' And there is a gap, yet to be completed: 'Before you can name that corner,' continues Ishvar, 'our future must become past.'

It is also a book of the city, Mumbai, which I don't think is ever named. After another adventure the tailors return to their favoured haunt, the Vishram restaurant:
'You fellows are amazing,' the sweaty cook roared over the stoves. 'Everything happens to you only. Each time you come here, you have a new adventure story to entertain us.'
'It's not us, it's the city,' said Om. 'A story factory, that's what it is, a spinning mill.'

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