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.

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.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Somerset Maugham : Far Eastern Tales

This collection of short stories was recommended to me by a French  art dealer who specializes in contemporary painting from Southeast Asia.

Regretfully, all of the principal characters are British -- and the stories are primarily about women who murder, deceive, or abandon their husbands.

As the author's semi-autobiographical novel, "Of Human Bondage" might suggest --  he had some difficulty relating intimately with women.  Quite possibly he would have been much happier if homosexuality had been as normalized back then as it is today.

There are two native characters - but they only lurk in the background as the temporary wives of lonely British  planters or officials who abandon them when pursuing white women for marriage..  Both dark skinned women seek revenge -- and rather effectively too.

The primary theme in all the stories is loneliness, isolation, and  boredom. Being an agent of British Colonialism was a miserable job.

I would not say that any of these stories is uplifting.  They usually end with murder or suicide.  But the prose is delicious.

Here is a the passage where a British official in a tiny, remote hamlet in Borneo is finally forced to tell his chirpy new English wife about the local girl she replaced:

It was not till after dinner that he spoke. During the simple meal he had exerted himself to be his usual gay self, but the exertion was apparent. The rain had ceased and the night was starry. They sat on the veranda. In order not to attract insects they had put out the lamp in the sitting-room. At their feet, with a mighty, formidable sluggishness, silent, mysterious, and fatal, flowed the river. It had the terrible deliberation and the relentlessness of destiny.

'Doris, I've got something to say to you,' he said suddenly.

Sunday, May 06, 2018

Jose Rizal : Noli Me Tangere

This is a rather densely written novel - with plenty of  minor characters whose only function appears to be local color.  So I was having some difficulty finishing it before the library wanted it back.

But as it turns out, it's a national treasure in the Philippines where every school child has to study it.  I feel kind of sorry for them - it can get quite tedious - but as a result it can be read online - and the intricate details of its plot have conveniently been summarized.

Rizal was a remarkable polymath and polyglot.  He was probably a role model for Pramoedya Toer, the Indonesian writer whose primary theme of his masterpiece, the Buru Quartet,  was also national independence from European colonialism.  But unlike Toer, Rizal could not sustain narrative tension. He  also could not survive the colonial backlash to his work. Toer spent most of his adult life in prison - but Rizal was shot by a firing squad at the age of 35.

Above is a picture of Rizal's girl friend who inspired the heroine, Maria Clara, of this novel.  Below is a statue of the Christian piety that also figures into the story.  Both were created by Rizal himself.  He was a very talented man!

By the way, I don't really get what was so heroic about Maria Clara.  She was beautiful, modest, chaste, and soft spoken.  But she does nothing good for anybody and eventually betrays her lover to save her own reputation.

Monday, March 05, 2018

R.K. Dentan :Overwhelming Terror

Human beings have rarely demonstrated much consistency in non-violent conflict resolution. Even a peaceful dude like myself, who has not attempted to hit anyone since high school, may occasionally fantasize strangling people who frustrate him.

That's why a small population of hunter/gatherers in the hills of peninsular Malaysia, the Semai,  have attracted the attention of anthropologists for over fifty years. 

 They don't hit their kids, they don't attack non-Semai people, they don't shoot, knife, or stomp each other.  They also try to avoid disrespect, abandonment, and betrayal.

One question is:  how do they do it ? .. and I'm afraid that after reading this book, I still have no idea. There are detailed depictions of a group-trance, a village town-hall meeting, and the case of one man who was imprisoned for murdering a Chinese --- but none of the stories give me any idea of what was happening.

The other question is: will they be able to keep on doing it? ...  and regretfully the answer appears to be no.  They cannot defend themselves against the encroachments of modern Malaysia: intellectually, spiritually, economically, legally, politically, or physically.

But the real subject of this book is the author himself - an American intellectual who identifies with people who are well meaning but helpless.  The book gives us some idea of his unhappy childhood, the love he feels for his wife and children, and his dismay over politics in the university where he spent his career.  The book also serves as an anthology of quotations from his favorite writers - especially Herman Melville -- and Ursula LaGuin whose quote from Lao Tzu appears below:

Once upon a time
people who knew the way
were subtle, spiritual, mysterious, penetrating

Since they're inexplicable
I can only say what they seemed like
Cautious, oh yes, as if wading through a winter river
Alert, as if afraid of the neighbors
Polite and quiet like houseguests
Elusive like melting ice

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Toer : The Fugitive

Javanese youth being trained by Japanese military

One of Toer's earliest novels, written in 1947 while incarcerated by the Dutch, this is an existential depiction of the moral, political, mental, and physical  exhaustion of the Javanese on the very last day of the Japanese occupation of the Dutch East Indies.  Incredibly enough -- the author was 22 years old.  The translator notes that this narrative structure resembles Wayang - the traditional Javanese puppet theater.  It's highly stylized -- but it does give me the feeling of witnessing historic events.

Each chapter features a repetitive conversation between the Fugitive and one other person:

chapter one:  the Fugitive's prospective father-in-law invites him home to dinner and a change of clothing.  The Fugitive declines .

chapter two:  the Fugitive meets his father in a remote hut where both of them are taking refuge.  The father identifies him by voice as his son =. The Fugitive denies it, and says that the older man is sick.

chapter three:  The Fugitive meets one of his fellow fugitives who insists that the Traitor among them be killed.  The Fugitive disagrees - saying that the Traitor was just a heartbroken lover who could be useful in the struggle for independence after the Japanese left.

chapter four:  The Traitor arrests the Fugitive's prospective father-in-law and expresses his contempt for the older man. Then the Traitor goes to arrest the Fugitive's fiancĂ© and begs her to trust him. The Japanese officer in charge of the local militia arrives. He threatens both father and daughter if they don't help him catch the Fugitive -- but then there is a disturbance in the street where the news of the Japanese surrender to America has just been announced - simultaneous with the capture of the Fugitive and two of his companions.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Toer : Girl from the Coast

As the author describes it in his postscript, "The Girl from the coast" (northeast coast of Java near Remblang) is every woman, age 14, trying to find her own way in the world - at the beginning of the 20th Century in Java as the pressure for nationalism and popular government is beginning to build. That every-woman is based upon the author's own grandmother - whose daughter (the author's mother) is the child sired by the pious  but cold-hearted aristocrat to whom  she was briefly married.

Tragically, for us readers, the two sequels to this novel were destroyed.  It would have been interesting to compare their description of the author's family with how he wrote about them in 'All that is Gone" - where his philandering father looses his job and turns to gambling.

This has become a well-known novel whose plot can be found all over the internet -- so I'll just focus on a few issues that interest me.

The cold-hearted aristocrat (the Bendoro) is described as a pious hajj who works as a religious advisor to the Dutch resident.  Apparently, his interpretation of Islamic law (or its local variant)  does not prohibit him from marrying a lower class woman whom he intends to divorce as soon as she bears him a child. The girl from the coast appears to be at least the third such instance of that behavior.  He presents himself as something of a religious jurist when he sits in judgment of his nephews and servants regarding the disappearance of a wallet filled with cash.  He remonstrates his nephews for their ignorance of the Koranic concept of "honor" - though he never gets around to defining it for them. When one nephew refuses to stand up and claim innocence, he throws him out of the house - which does seem like reasonable behavior. Yet he also throws out the servant who raised the issue of  theft in the first place.  He praises her diligence, but condemns her for accusing an well-born  aristocrat - even though her accusation was confirmed. I doubt Islamic would forbid true accusations from low born to high born - but perhaps it offers little to counter the immense social pressure that opposes it.  And  Koran 4:34 does allow a man to strike or beat  his wife if she disobeys him.

After condemning the servant for making that accusation, the Bendoro asks her what her punishment should be.  The servant replies that being low-born is punishment enough - which the Bendoro immediately rejects as blasphemy  All life is a gift from God and must be accepted with gratitude. I happen to agree with the Bendoro - although the servant might properly reply: "then you should not harm that gift by treating me so unjustly"  

By the way, I'm not really sure why the servant did make her accusation when, as the girl from coast understood, she knew that she would lose her job.  The Bendoro was not going to throw his wife out because the week's budget got lost once -- and he was eventually going to throw her out, anyway, as soon as she delivered a child.  Perhaps the servant wishes to punish herself - for having survived her husband when he was killed for standing up for her.

Why does the Bendoro take all these "practice" wives?  Does he need more illegitimate children? Does he want to avoid marrying a woman of higher status who might make demands upon him? Was it something his own father did? It's difficult to fathom his character because this novel only sees him though the eyes of his 15 year old, rustic wife, even if the novel is not a first-person narrative.

He is apparently intimidated by one of his female relatives who visits and tells him to dump his commoner wife so he can marry within the aristocracy. Perhaps he has been trying to avoid such a marriage because he'd really rather pray and study instead of invite social equals into his house. Perhaps he has also been trying to find his own way in the world.

Many of the consequences of his marriage to the girl from coast have been positive. The girl's family got enough money for two new boats; the girl had many experiences she would never have otherwise had access to.  She ends up living as an independent woman - who doesn't even want to move in with her daughter when given that invitation.  The  bendoro got another child  - and  sexual appetite does not appear to have been the issue. Most importantly for the author - the marriage produced the child who would eventually become the author's own mother.  The only downside was the emotional trauma for the mother of taking away her newborn child. Yet, as the postscript tells us, the child was well loved and educated while the girl from the coast would later take a second husband - and eventually meet, and be loved, by her daughter.