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, July 18, 2017

Toer : This Earth of Mankind

An incredible novel in so many ways --beginning with the circumstances of its creation: composed on Buru, an Indonesian prison island in the middle of the Banda Sea, where prisoners were forbidden to read or write.  The author wrote the book into memory, and recited it into a written text two years later.

Not surprising, then, that the story is so intense: a brave, brilliant, loving, entrepreneurial, creative,  high school student coming of age in Dutch run Surabaya, Java.  He has everything going for  him  except for ethnicity: he's pure bred Javanese - and therefore at the bottom of a highly stratified social order that has the native Dutch on top.  He's the only Javanese in his elite school.

A friend takes him to meet a pretty girl who helps manage a wealthy plantation -- and soon he's immersed in Gothic entanglements.  The girl's father is a Dutch planter who has lost his mind.  Her mother is that man's concubine whom he has educated and taught to run the business.

As a pure born native, the mother has no legal rights at all.  As a half-breed Dutch, her daughter has some social standing --and as a bright and  exceptionally beautiful young woman, our student, Minke, falls in love with her immediately.

But more than a tragic love story - this is the tragic story of Dutch colonialization that failed to integrate with native society.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Eka Kurniawan : Beauty is a Wound

This is a fantasy -- as announced at the very beginning:  a dead woman climbs out of her grave. Her clothes have rotted away, while her body is none the worse for having been buried in the tropical soil for twenty years.

We have to wait until the very end of the book to sense the logic of that strange event -  one of many revelations that make the story fun to read.

Dramatic suspense is not the point here. The question is never "what happens next" - it's always "What just happened?"  It's all about comprehending the order of this exotic world -- with one foot in 20th C. Indonesian history, and  the other foot in Asian pulp fiction fantasy.

Being unfamiliar with both - I was totally hooked -- my inner eye glued to my inner screen where the author was projecting his outrageous images of beautiful hookers and sentimental/ruthless thugs.

There's plenty of rape and bloodshed -- but it's all happening to puppets.  There is no sense that an actual human being has been harmed.

The language is ornamental -- even in translation where the sound and origin of words is lost.  It's enough just to know where the author wants to guide your attention. For example, in a crucial scene where a teenaged girl stands naked in front of her class to tell them that she has just been raped by a dog in the privy  (don't ask), the author has us attend to the blackness of her hair and some objects that have just fallen on the floor. He paints a picture -- and there is no inner life beyond the hunger or satisfaction of sex.

We're introduced to the history of the Japanese occupation, the liberation and the purge of the Communist party.  But there is no indication that the country was being transformed into a modern economy in the late 20th Century. (the story runs through 1998 - and then  gives us a "happily ever after" for the four sisters.)

Two of the three major male characters are criminals (though one has status as a military commander)  Their mates are housewives - except that one bakes and sells cookies. The third male character is a Communist organizer who survives the purge and then goes into three failing businesses:  owning a library (no income), harvesting edible birds' nests (too dangerous), and finally making swimwear for tourists (the land beneath his kiosk is seized for a new hotel) He ends up hanging himself.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

V.S. Naipaul - Beyond Belief

As a secular humanist, Naipaul has no use for religion - but he especially blames Islam for the destruction of  Hindu civilization - and this collection of narratives is something of a screed against the proliferation of the faith.

He interviews people in  Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan, and Malaysia -- then tells their life stories.

In Indonesia, the stories are about men who combine missionary activity with technological development.  In Iran, the stories involve the aftermath of the passionate revolution and the long war with Iraq.  Amazingly, he got to interview  Sadegh Khalkhali, the notorious "hanging judge". In Pakistan the stories involve families caught up in the chaos of inter ethnic strife. (he's pretty sure that Pakistan was a bad idea to begin with - except that at least it made it easier for India to achieve some kind of political order).  In Malaysia, the stories involve people whose lives have not been dramatically changed  by Islam at all.  Native Malaysian beliefs seem to have been more important - which Naipaul sees as a  good thing.

Monday, April 10, 2017

V.S. Naipaul Bend in the River


Written prior to "Half a Life" and "Magic Seeds", the novel covers the same territory: a ethnic South Asian man living in war torn Africa - possibly the Congo - compensating for his hopeless situation with sexual adventure.

He became a writer in order “to fill out my world picture . . . to make me more at ease with myself”. Seen through this prism, his tropes of African malaise appear more personal, less judgmental; an attempt to understand the follies of the colonial and postcolonial conditions (what he calls “colonial schizophrenia”) rather than a simply reflex rejection of their failures. -- Colin Murphy, reviewing the "Mask of Africa"

Thursday, March 16, 2017

V. S. Naipaul : Magic Seeds

"It is wrong to have an ideal view of the world.  That's where the mischief starts. That's where everything starts unravelling.  But I can't write to Sarojini about that"

With this sad-but-wise conclusion, Willie brings an end to "Magic Seeds", the sequel to "Half a Life".

And I disagree -  at least with regards to Willie's life.  It could not begin to unravel because it was never raveled together in the first place.  As Naipaul has told his story, he was a lost soul  the moment he  was conceived by a Brahmin father and a Dalit mother.  He has never cared about anything but himself - and even regarding himself - he  only cares about sexual urges.   He is a cockroach - albeit a very intelligent and introspective one.

This novel begins in Berlin where Willie had fled Mozambique to finally begin living his own life.  I had predicted that he would just continue his sexual adventures, but I was wrong.  Instead, his sister sends him to join the Maoist insurgents in India.  Given his absent personality, he has a natural ability to hide in plain sight - but that is his only martial ability.  Eventually he manages to half-heartedly kill some hapless peasant -- and then as the local insurgency collapses, he finds himself in jail.

I'm not sure that we can rely Naipaul to know anything about Indian prisons (or Maoist insurgents) -- but if his depiction is accurate, those prisons exemplify a wrong-headed compassion where captured rebels are encouraged to organize their own ideological activities.   

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

V.S. Naipaul : Half a Life

Alas, poor Willie.

His father a Brahmin - his mother a Dalit - and he's a talented writer with opportunities but no idea of what to do with life except fuck.

Compassionate - sharply observant - but ultimately self centered - just as the  book is Willie centered -  with secondary characters that are fascinating but sketchy.  How does his wife spend her time? How did Willie himself spend his time before he became more curious about his sexuality? We are told  nothing about whatever challenges he faced in agribusiness or as a husband. Would he have lived in Africa his entire life if the insurrection had never happened?

Presumably this novel  targets readers with a taste for colonial guilt and sexual perversity.

Yet the story breathes with life -- the narrative is unpredictable and exciting. It seems to diverge - instead of converge - as the story progresses.  When we're told that Willie has left London for Mozambique and will stay there for 18 years -- it's like jumping off the high board at a swimming pool. 

The story ends abruptly as Willie leaves Mozambique without career, family, or cash.  There is a sequel that begins in Berlin - so I suppose I'll next be reading about his German girlfriends.


Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Anisul Hoque : Freedom's Mother

This story is more of a panegyric tribute to ideal heroes  than a modern novel.  There is no complexity - no character development -  no ambivalence.

Azad was a young participant in the Bangladesh War of Independence.who was arrested, tortured, and killed by the Pakistani army. Sofia Begum was his mother who never accepted or recovered from his disappearance.  She mourned him every day of the fourteen years she had left to live.

It's not hard to see Azad as a Romantic young fool, too immature to take even the simplest precautions as he enters into the life of an urban terrorist.   It's not hard to see his mother as a foolish old woman too proud to reimagine a new life for herself after her husband takes a second wife -- and then later --- after her son is killed.  All she can do is gradually sell off her jewelry and cook for her family and friends. Someone needed to tell her son that he was on a path to destruction -- and it was not going to be her. His father might have intervened - but she firmly rejecting having him back in their lives - despite his  repeated entreaty.

A reviewer, Robert Hutchison (is he the writer of popular books on Christianity?), tells us that "by her strength of character and incredibly dignity, Safia Begum offers an example for us all".  Sadly, this may have been the message that Anisul Hoque wished to convey,  bit this is the death-cult world of orthodox Islam.  Everybody's honor is preserved - but their lives, along with many others,  are lost.  In the end, the world is no better off - just more of same.

One might also note that the characters are apparently oblivious to the Bhola cyclone of 1970 and 300,000 to 500,000 people killed. Apparently honor was not involved.