The Forlorn Adventure by Amir Falique

This is my book from Brunei for the Read The World challenge. Brunei is one of the countries which is particularly difficult to find books from; so when I found this self-published ‘science fiction thriller’ on Amazon I snapped it up.

It is the story of A’jon, a man chosen to be Brunei’s first astronaut because of his expertise in cryptography. His mission is caught up in Dramatic Events, and [SPOILER ALERT, I guess], he is put in suspended animation for 500 years, floating in space, before being revived and brought back to earth where his cryptographic expertise once more gets him involved in Dramatic Events and [even more SPOILERY] he saves the world.

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Sadly it’s not very good; it’s the kind of book that makes people suspicious of self-publishing. This is a sample of the clunky prose and dialogue:

A’jon grabbed his fork and drove it into the middle of the plate. He twirled the fork several times until he grabbed the right amount, and then lifted it without a strand hanging and put it in his mouth. He was careful to not drop any of the sauce and get his new clothes dirty. His tongue reacted instantly to the food. “Mmm, that’s delicious!” he said while chewing the first bite.

“Makes me proud to be an Asian. Pasta originated from China before it was brought to Italy. It’s amazing how the combination of water and wheat can form such remarkable dough. You can mold it into almost any shape you like — fusilli, tagliatelle, ziti, rice vermicelli.”

With each bite, A’jon wrapped as much of the cheesy sauce round his tongue as he could before the flavor disappeared.

I’m resisting the urge to really pull this book apart; because it’s a soft target, and also because its flaws are essentially innocuous. It’s not particularly annoying or offensive, it’s just badly written.

» The picture is of the teapot roundabout in Kuala Belait, Brunei. It is © Rachel Walker and used under a by-nc-sa licence.

21 Immortals by Rozlan Mohd Noor and Ripples by Shih-Li Kow

These are a couple of books from Malaysia which I read for the Read The World challenge, both picked because I thought they would make a change compared to some of what I read for the challenge. For a start, they’re both contemporary works, rather than the 20, 30, 40 year old books I often end up reading. And 21 Immortals: Inspector Mislan and the Yee Sang Murders is a crime novel, while Ripples and other stories is, obviously, a books of short stories.

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21 Immortals was a silly choice, really. Not because of the book itself, which is fine I guess, but because I have never understood the appeal of crime fiction (or indeed the even more depressing genre, ‘true crime’). I’m just not very interested in the grisly murders themselves or the police procedural/CSI stuff. The Malaysian setting gave it some novelty value, but otherwise it was a pretty standard example of the genre and so it largely left me cold.

Ripples is more my usual thing: more ‘literary’, anyway. The stories are interlinked, each picking up some detail or character from the story before, and they are surprisingly varied in style: some are low key stories about the details of everyday life, others have more overtly dramatic subjects or are fantastical tales. Not all of them are equally successful, but there was plenty here to keep me reading, at least. At least with short stories, if you don’t like one much, there’s always another one along in a minute. And if this review seems a bit vague and non-commital: well, the truth is that it has been a few days since I finished Ripples; and although I quite liked it while I was reading it, it didn’t leave a profound impression.

So, slightly underwhelming choices for Malaysia, but hey-ho, on to the next thing.

» ‘Summer Storm over Kuala Lumpur’ is © Trey Ratcliff and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

Survival in the Killing Fields by Haing Ngor and Roger Warner

Survival in the Killing Fields is my book from Cambodia for the Read The World challenge. Haing Ngor was a doctor in pre-revolutionary Phnom Penh. That alone was enough to make him a target for the Khmer Rouge, but he managed to survive their regime through lies, determination, judgement and blind luck. Later he made it to America, was cast in the film The Killing Fields, and won an Oscar for best supporting actor.

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Which is a remarkable story, and superficially one of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity; except that really, even an Academy Award is no kind of compensation for forced labour, torture, exile, and the death of most of your family. And in the Epilogue written for this edition, 15 years after the original publication, we learn that Ngor had a pretty rough time of it in the US — which I guess you have to say is not surprising, given all he’d been through, that he was living as a refugee with limited English, and that frankly he seems to have been a somewhat difficult man even before the psychological scarring of the Khmer Rouge years. The final tragic twist is that he was shot dead outside his home in Los Angeles in what was probably but not definitely a normal, non-political robbery.

So it’s a dark book. It would be difficult to read except that the matter-of-fact way that it’s told keeps it from being as harrowing as it might be.

In some ways I would have liked to read a non-Khmer Rouge book for Cambodia, because it seems a pity to always see these countries through the lens of their most spectacular historical traumas. But I’m glad I read this, even so. In some ways all these political atrocities start to blur together, all endless variations on a theme — torture, paranoia, propaganda, casual violence — but somehow they all have their own distinctive local flavour. The Khmer Rouge see to have been characterised by a particularly nasty combination of anti-intellectualism, viciousness and incompetence.

» The photo is a shot from the film.

Noli Me Tangere by José Rizal

Noli Me Tangere is described on the back cover as ‘The novel that sparked the Philippine revolution’. Which sounds a bit hyperbolic, but apparently the publication of the novel in 1887 was an important moment; even more so, Rizal’s subsequent execution for rebellion, sedition and conspiracy.

So it’s a political novel, an unusually early example of a colonial novel written from the perspective of the colonised. In this case, the main representatives of colonial power are from the church rather than the civil authorities. That’s not unique; religion has often been an important tool of empire and post-colonial novels are full of priests and nuns and, above all, church schools. But the Philippines does seem to have been an extreme case, where the religious institutions were more powerful than the civil authorities.

Which means that the book is peopled with villainous friars — cruel, vindictive, scheming, manipulative, hypocritical, lustful, oleaginous — and it reminded me of those early gothic novels which always seemed to have sinister, black-hearted monks in them.* Especially since it’s never shy of a bit of melodrama.

In fact, it’s a rather lumpy mixture of melodrama, satire and long, wordy political discussions, and I can’t say all of it held my attention equally. I liked it most when it was at its most exaggerated — ferociously satirical or floridly gothic — and I found it fell a bit flat when it aimed for genuine sentiment.

A mixed bag for me, then. Bits of it are genuinely brilliant, though. There’s a scene with gravediggers at work in a badly over-crowded cemetery which is wonderfully morbid, for example; and a grotesque portrayal of an ageing Filipina who is so determined to marry a Spaniard and be ‘Spanish’ herself that she marries a useless, feckless man whose only quality is that in the Philippines his nationality gives him an ersatz respectability, then insists on only speaking broken Spanish.

Noli Me Tangere by José Rizal, translated by Harold Augenbraum, is my book from the Philippines for the Read the World challenge.

* In my memory they do, anyway, although glancing through a few plot synopses on Wikipedia, they were just as likely to be sinister, black-hearted aristocrats. Perhaps I’m just thinking of The Monk.

» The memorial of the execution of José Rizal is in Rizal Park in Manila. Rizal is apparently a full-on national hero in the Philippines, so there were many statues to choose from, but this is the most dynamic; the most in keeping, perhaps with the tone of the book.  The photo is © Joshua Bousel and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

From the Land of Green Ghosts by Pascal Khoo Thwe

From the Land of Green Ghosts is an autobiography. Pascal Khoo Thwe is from the Padaung ethnic minority in Burma — best known for the brass neck-rings worn by the women which elongate their necks — and was brought up with both the local animist traditions and Catholicism; the two religious traditions seem to have coexisted rather more easily than a strict reading of Catholic theology might allow.

He went to a Catholic seminary but later decided he didn’t want to be a priest, and instead went to university in Mandalay, where he studied for a couple of years before witnessing some of the political uprising of of 1988 and the government’s brutal response. He was briefly a political activist before it became clear that the revolution had failed, when he was forced to flee across country, initially to the area held by the longstanding ethnic Karenni rebellion and then across the border to Thailand. Eventually, thanks to an earlier chance meeting with a Cambridge professor visiting Mandalay, he was offered the chance to go to England to study literature at Cambridge.

The early parts, about a childhood in the backwoods of Burma with traditional customs and a Catholic education, are interesting and atmospheric; but it really comes into its own with the uprising. He was a relatively unpolitical youth confronted by staggering government violence, and he communicates something of the shock and the anger.

I’ve read quite a lot of books about dictatorships and government repression and civil war and so on as part of the Read The World challenge — mainly I think because it’s a subject that appeals to English language publishers — but this is one of the better ones. Above all because Khoo Thwe is a good writer. But what I particularly like is that it’s the opposite of self-aggrandising. He’s clearly a fairly impressive individual; at various times his actions show intelligence, courage and resourcefulness. But he constantly undercuts any hint that he’s the hero, even of his own story; he presents himself as naive, uncertain, and always at the mercy of events.

I’m not suggesting this is mock humility; I’m sure he genuinely felt those things. And after all, it’s basically a story of failed revolution and exile, although that’s hardly his fault. But another writer might have been less willing to be so frank, and the story would have been less interesting as a result.

From the Land of Green Ghosts is my book from Myanmar/Burma for the Read The World challenge.

» The photo is from Burma but admittedly only tangentially relevant. Lion Taming For Beginners 101 is © Taro Taylor and used under a CC by-nc licence.

This Earth of Mankind by Pramoedya Ananta Toer

This Earth of Mankind is the first novel of the Buru Quartet, so called because it was composed when Pramoedya Ananta Toer was a political prisoner on Buru Island in the 60s. I say ‘composed’ rather than ‘written’ because the first version of it was told orally to his fellow prisoners. He had apparently just about finished the research and planning when he was arrested and all his notes and books were destroyed.

Which is an immediately intriguing back-story, although the relationship between the novel and his imprisonment is not particularly direct, in that Pramoedya was imprisoned by Suharto’s military dictatorship as part of an anti-Communist purge, whereas the novel is set at the very end of the C19th — 1898, in fact — in a Java which is part of the Dutch East Indies.

Still, it is, among other things, a clearly political novel; it deals with the political awakening of a young man growing up in a society structured as a formal racial hierarchy, with ‘Natives’ at the bottom, ‘Pures’ (i.e. Europeans) at the top, and a layer of ‘Indos’ (Indo-European, mixed race) stuck in the middle, operating as a local elite.

The hero of the novel is a Native, but an unusually privileged one; because of the importance of his family, he is the only Native* at an elite high school for Europeans and Indos. So he’s awkwardly positioned in between worlds, brought up to believe that his European education makes him better than other Natives. But of course when he comes into conflict with the establishment, he discovers how fragile his privilege is, and how much he is dependent on the goodwill of the colonial powers.

I enjoyed it; it reminded me rather of one of those European novels from between the world wars, with a whiff of melodrama, and characters having long wordy conversations about ideas. Slightly old-fashioned, but in a good way. I’m certainly tempted to pick up the second in the quartet.

This Earth of Mankind is my book from Indonesia for the Read The World challenge.

* it feels very weird to keep capitalising ‘Native’ like that, but I’m following the practice of the novel, or the translation, which capitalises the racial terms to emphasise their formal legal status.

» The photo, by Isidore van Kinsbergen, is from Wikimedia, and according to Google Translate, it is Raden Mas Kotar of the court of Sultan Hamengkoe Buwono VI of Djogkakarta. it’s from 1870, so it’s about 30 years too early, but hey-ho.

Paradise of the Blind by Duong Thu Huong

Paradise of the Blind is a Vietnamese novel which was apparently a bestseller in 1988 when it was originally published, in a relatively liberal moment in that country’s recent politics, but has since been banned for Duong’s unflattering portrayal of the Communist party. I’m embarrassed to admit, I had no idea that Vietnam was still a communist state. In fact, most of my associations with Vietnam are, now I think about it, drawn entirely from American war movies. So if nothing else, this book has done a little to redress that balance.

It is told mainly in flashback; Hang, a young Vietnamese woman working in a textile factory in the Soviet Union as an ‘exported worker’, is travelling across Russia on the train to visit her uncle in Moscow and remembering her childhood. Her family has been torn apart by communist land reforms, or more precisely by a feud resulting from her uncle’s behaviour as a party official during those reforms.

I’ve mentioned before that I find these novels from communist countries weirdly nostalgic. It’s not nostalgia for communism itself, which I didn’t experience. But all the imagery of communism, the breadlines, dysfunctional communal living, petty bureaucracy, the political jargon, the dangerous black market consumer goods, it all reminds me of my childhood, when the USSR was still the Great Other, and when all these images were a lively strand of popular culture.  It seems a little odd to lump communism in with Smash Hits and The Karate Kid, but that’s the way my head works.

My own quirks aside, it’s a striking and interesting novel about family relationships, and Vietnamese culture, and above all, the way that an all-consuming, inhuman political system drags down the daily lives of its citizens, and capriciously interferes with the most modest, simple human ambitions: marriage, education, livelihood.

It’s not what you’d call a cheerful book. But I would broadly recommend it.

Paradise of the Blind is my book from Vietnam for the Read The World challenge.

NB. A couple of housekeeping notes. I always feel the translators deserve a mention, even if I have nothing in particular to say about the translation, so a hat tip to Phan Huy Duong and Nina McPherson. And on the transliteration of Vietnamese names: Wikipedia renders the author’s name with a few more diacritics, as Dương Thu Hương. I decided to stick with the version used on the title page.

» The photo is © Rosino and used under a CC by-sa licence.

Equal to the Earth by Jee Leong Koh

I know Jee on the internet — originally via PFFA, the online poetry forum, but also now through his blog, Song of a Reformed Headhunter — so I already knew I liked his poems. And as a bonus, Equal to the Earth serves as my book from Singapore for the Read The World challenge.

Jee is, to quote the blurb on Lulu, ‘a gay poet born and bred in Singapore, educated at Oxford, now living and teaching in New York.’ Which gives you an idea of some of the major themes: ethnicity, sexuality, the immigrant experience and so on. But that list of topics sounds worryingly like the poems might be painfully earnest, which they are not; they have a delicacy of touch, both in handling the material and the verse.

I’ve read quite a lot of them before, sometimes I think in earlier versions, but it was a pleasure to sit down and revisit them.

Mother’s Beloved by Outhine Bounyavong

Mother’s Beloved is a collection of short stories from Laos; even with an introductory essay and with the Lao printed opposite the English, it’s only 160 pages. BTW, I don’t know a lot about Lao names, but I think that ‘Outhine’ is the surname.

I knew absolutely nothing about Laos except its approximate location (between Thailand and Vietnam). Fortunately this book has an essay about contemporary Lao literature that acted as a quick primer on the country’s modern history, which has been fairly grim: it went from being a Thai colony to a French one, got caught up in the Indochina War and the Vietnam War, when the Americans bombed it extremely heavily, then had about 15 years of communist government. Apparently it has liberalised somewhat since the fall of Russian communism, but there’s still only one legal political party: the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party.

The stories themselves are short and simple, both stylistically (as far as I can tell from these translations) and in terms of action. And indeed morality: by which I mean that you could often end each story with ‘and the moral of this story is … [something].’ I don’t think it’s a coincidence that most of them were published when Laos was a communist state; I think some of that simplicity that comes from writing in a country where too much ambiguity might be regarded as politically suspicious. And often the ‘morals’ are as much political as moral: ‘every one of us, no matter how humble, can make our own sacrifice in aid of the war effort’, for example.

Still, the very simplicity of the stories has its own appeal, and one or two of them managed to combine that simplicity with just the right emotional note in a way I found effective. I’ve decided that one way I could make these little reviews more useful would be quote some of the books, so here’s the opening of a story called The Eternal Pair of Birds. It’s actually an unusually elaborate passage, but you can see it has a kind of plainness to the language.

It was late February. At the edge of the rice fields grew a flame tree full of red blooms whose colour, when reflecting the setting sun, was so bright it hurt the eyes. Next to it stood a lone palmyra. It stretched so high as if to challenge the rainstorm, the hurricane, and the sunshine. It had stood there, strong and graceful, for ages. To the people in this rural hamlet, it was like a timepiece. When the sun was high above its crown, it was noon. When the sun’s rays struck parallel across the top of its fronds, it was time to herd the cattle back to the stable and for the housewives to prepare dinner.

Mother’s Beloved is my book from Laos for the Read The World challenge. I quite enjoyed it, on balance, and if nothing else, it encouraged me to learn a bit more about the country.

» The picture is from the Plain of Jars, an archeological site in Laos which I hadn’t heard of before but is mentioned in one of the stories. The stone ‘jars’, about 1500-2000 years old, are of unknown purpose but may be funerary urns or for food storage. Apparently it’s now one of the most dangerous archeological sites on earth because of all the left-over American cluster bombs. The photo, from Flickr, is © Kumar Nav and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

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