Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Min Jin Lee : Pachinko

Looks like the toy section in a Walmart, doesn't it ?    It's actually a pachinko hall in Japan - pachinko being a mechanical device that's  fun to play like a pinball machine, and gambles your money away like a slot machine.

For many Japanese, it's addictive to play --- but it's also low-class to operate,  so most of the industry is  run by  the shunned Korean  minority --- and that's how it fits into this melodramatic  novel about a Korean family living in Japan.

As demonstrated in WWII, the Japanese don't show much respect for Asian ethnicities other than their own   - and they are especially contemptuous of Koreans. So there is some degree of revengs as pachinko makes some Koreans rich and some Japanese poor

The author tells us that she was inspired to write this book by the story of a Korean boy who killed himself after his Japanese classmates wrote hateful messages in his yearbook.

Her novel is basically a melodrama of good, innocent, long suffering, hard working, family-devoted Koreans being abused by cruel, perverse, greedy Japanese.  The only good  Japanese are those at the bottom of society - those  whom other Japanese have rejected.  

That structure is a bit tedious and predictable -- as is the author's taste for heart wrenching sorrow.

It's a feel good story as people who were once poor, starving, and abused become affluent through honest hard work and dedication to each other.  But none of them becomes successful at anything other than the pachinko business.

There is zero social idealism, here, outside the firm boundary of the family.            

Monday, February 18, 2019

Ernest Satow : A Diplomat in Japan

This memoir would probably be fascinating
for those familiar with the Meiji Restoration and the characters involved.

For me - it was like listening to the obscure dinner table chatter
of the table next to yours.
(and many good dinners were described in some detail)

It would appear that young Satow,
then working as a translator as he learned the language,
was completely in the dark
regarding the Japanese politics of that time.

He keeps reassuring us that the British had no horses in this race.
But he also seems to favor the Emperor over the Shogun.

The main drama, for him, takes place on a very small scale:
Europeans being randomly murdered by sword-happy Samurai -
for  which the European diplomats would demand justice and restitution.

He is less concerned when the European and American gunboats fire 
on Japanese towns and fortifications. 

Regrettfully, there are no details of Satow's off-duty life.

Eventually he would take a Japanese woman as common-law wife,
so we may suspect that he may have been served by
courtesans as well as geishas.  

But we'll never know.

Sunday, January 06, 2019

Tan Twan Eng: The Gift of Rain

Beginning with the Iliad, gay romance and martial art have shared a long history together. And the  mentor/lover relationship is found in  the warrior class of  Medieval Japan as well as Bronze Age Greece.

As with Tan's second novel, this first one centers around an aristocratic Japanese super-hero -- in this case  a direct disciple of Ueshiba Morihei, the founder of Aikido - presented here as both a peerless martial art and a sublime spiritual discipline.

As in  the second novel, that hero is described by a Straits Chinese senior citizen recalling a youthful romantic relationship.  (though in this story the narrator is only half Chinese - the other parent being British).  Apparently the author, himself Straits Chinese,  also has a passion for Samurai culture.

As in the second novel, this story is set in northwest Malaysia, and the main characters, like the author himself, grew up on the island of  Penang.  But in both novels, ethnic Malaysians - or any other south Asians - do not appear. These are stories about the upper class -- which is British and Chinese -- during the Japanese occupation.  And the main theme seems to be puzzlement:  how can aristocratic Japanese be so spiritual, sensitive and aesthetic -- while also being so monstrous and cruel.  A puzzlement that well reflects the narrator's mixed British-Chinese heritage.  As a Christian, the narrator would believe in a moral universe created for a spiritual drama in which every human soul plays an essential role.  Buddhism, Taoism, and just about every other religious practice, however, are beyond Good and Evil.  Outside specific social obligations, human are expected to behave no better or worse than insects in a forest. 

And as in the second novel, the old narrator has led a productive but lonely existence in the four or five decades that followed the death or disappearance of the Japanese hero. No lovers, no close friends, no children, no family.

There's a lot of silliness in this story - especially regarding lost shrines in the jungle and flashbacks to a previous life. But perhaps that is appropriate for teenage romance - and for a narrator who has apparently been damaged by his experience.  I can't imagine being forced to watch as anyone, especially a close relative, was being tortured to death.  I would never recover either - except, perhaps, by becoming a reclusive monk.

The mood throughout both of Tan's novels is the melancholy that accompanies a sense of loss. Every good - and every really bad -  thing happened in the past

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Tan Twan Eng : Garden of Evening Mists

This story primarily serves as a vehicle for the author, a business-class Straits Chinese,  to express his admiration, and perhaps even sexual attraction,  for aristocratic Japanese culture.

The principal protagonist is a well-born Chinese woman from Penang, Ling,  who is the only survivor of a  remote slave labor camp run by the Japanese military in WWII.  Upon release, she graduates law school and soon is prosecuting Japanese war criminals. She is unhappy, bitter, and guilty that her sister, an artist, was left behind to die in the horrific conditions of the camp.  Her terminally bad attitude gets her fired, after which she visits a former business associate of her father, a Dutchman who owns a tea plantation in the Cameron highlands, a scenic area not far from Kuala Lumpur.  She then visits his neighbor, Aritomo, who is building an elaborate Japanese garden .  He's not just any gardener.  He used to be the chief gardener for Hirohito, the  Emperor of Japan.

As it turns out, he's also a master of  Zen archery, martial art, woodblock printing, and full-body, horimono tattoos.  Ling asks Aritomo to design a formal Japanese garden in memory of her sister. He declines, but offers to apprentice her so she can learn to design such a garden herself. She accepts. He also teachers her  Zen archery and inks a horitomo on her back. Eventually they share a bed -- though they both seem too cold to be called 'lovers'.

Soon after being visited by a\ Japanese delegation who bear the emperor's invitation to return to the imperial  gardens, he is seen walking into the rainforest - from which he never returns. Forty years later, Ling, who subsequently was appointed to the Supreme Court of Malaysia, returns to what remains of the garden, which had been deeded to her.  She allows an enthusiast of woodblock prints to see her collection of Aritomo's work, and he reveals that when a schematic plan of the garden is combined with the tattoo on her back, the location where hidden slave labor camp can be found. That might also suggest that Aritomo may well have been one of the many Japanese agents sent into southeast Asia to gather intelligence and make preparations for the Japanese military invasion that would follow.  Other details dropped along the way, suggest that the purpose of that labor camp was to excvate a cave in a mountainside into which wartime plunder could be hidden until the imperial family was finally in a position to retrieve it. Ling's sister, as well as all the prisoners and their guards, had been buried alive to keep that location a secret.


Aritomo is something of a war criminal himself.

And as Ling reveals to him, she survived the death camp by consistently betraying her fellow prisoners.

There no happy-ever-afters for these two sexual partners. Ling even rejects a creepy offer to purchase her tattoo post-mortem ---- so it will vanish when she does.

What will not vanish, however, is the voice that the author has given her -- the persistently calm and rational voice that tells this story.  It's both tough and gentle, with a taste for selected fine detail.   

She is recognized, by those who have read her legal opinions, as a concise, perceptive writer. There's no small irony in the fact that this woman, professionally dedicated to delivering justice to the Japanese who killed, raped, and abused so many Chinese--- has eventually come to allow a Japanese agent to fuck and tattoo her after having her labor in his garden.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Hari Kunzru : Gods Without Men

Centered around an eye-catching rock formation in the Mojave Desert,  a British Kashmiri Pandit offers a rather contemptuous  examination of the past 250 years of Euro-American consciousness.

From ethno-centric Spanish priests to renegade Mormons to bloodthirsty lawmen to UFO cultists to drug crazed hippies --to vacationing British rock stars or American hedge fund savants-- he depicts it as shallow, cruel, wacky, and destructive.  There's even a PTSD anthropologist who scorns his young wife as well as the native Americans they study. Appropriately enough, he ends up living alone in a hole in ground where he is blown up by a tear gas grenade. Ouch!  The one character who is least demented is the least  European: a Punjabi-American Sikh.  But ever he loses his mind in the end.

I suppose that every country -- like every creature -- has an ass-hole. Hari Kunzru is a rather articulate and imaginative proctologist.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Han Suyin : A Many Splendored Thing

Not really the cheesy romance in an exotic location that the subsequent film by Henry King  and the song by Sammy Fain had led me to expect.

And I might not even call it a novel. It's more like a collection of poems, essays, and narrative about a transitional moment in the author's life.   As one might learn from a feature story in the New York Times thirty years later, the author had a problematic childhood and first marriage.  Her Belgian mother rejected her and her first husband, a general in the Kuomintang,  had beaten her. It was the brief, unexpected, hopeless affair with a British journalist that opened her up to experience life as a "many splendored thing".  Call it sexual healing.

We never really get to meet her lover, Mark, until the final pages where we hear his voice in the letters he wrote from Korea shortly before he was killed. Those are my favorite pages. We also barely meet the daughter of this single mother.  She appears to have been mostly neglected as her mother parks her with one sheltering family after another.

The subject of the book is "who am I ?  Asian or European ?"

She has a European education that qualifies her to practice medicine in Hong Kong. She has a Chinese mandarin family that is going through the turmoil of civil war and the new, Communist state.

She declares her loyalty to China - and repeatedly tells us that she wants to serve as a physician there. She also declares her love to the journalist and wants to marry him.  Neither is going to happen.

Subsequent to writing this book, she moves around Southeast Asia, India, and Europe writing books.

That's her real identity:  a brilliant, articulate, cerebral, Taoist, aesthetic, self-centered, bi-cultural woman who writes books for curious readers like myself.

She became controversial for her steadfast defense of the communist regime. Though, we might note, she does eventually admit that Chairman Mao became senile and made mistakes -- comments that might have made her life difficult had she chosen to live in China.  By the way -- she chose not to.  She voted against that regime with her feet.

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Anthony Burgess : Malayan Trilogy

Don't laugh at butterflies!

That may be the only bit of useful advice I take away from the colorful story of one Victor Crabbe - a British colonial educator who is comprehensively humiliated by the author in this tour of the Malaysia during its first year of  independence.

He's a well intentioned  imperialist who tries to help the people of the protectorate instead of extract its wealth - but he loses everything except his idealism:  his job, his mistress, his wife, his car, and eventually his life.

In each of the three episodes he is paired with a comic character:  a British NCO who wants nothing more from life than a cold bottle of beer -- a British attorney who marries a wealthy Muslim woman to bail out his failing practice - and a Malayan minor  government worker who is on a vendetta against a Tamil whom he believes got him fired.  None of them, except the alcoholic soldier ends up getting what he wants.  (the soldier wins the lottery)

There's kind of a dark, hip sense of humor about it all that reminds me Blake  Edwards.

There's also an ongoing fascination with all the languages involved in this multi-ethnic country: Maylasian,  Tamil, Urdu, Chinese,  English.

Unlike the Somerset Maugham stories of East, the reader is taken out of the English club and dumped rudely onto the hectic streets -- and some effort is made to develop non-British characters.