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, 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.

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

We are safe here the war
is somewhere else the war is
in our heads but we are safe
Safe. The banks open and close
and open: we are saved

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.


Wednesday, January 03, 2018

J.J. Maze : Walk until Sunrise

Gustav Dore,  from  Dante's Inferno (detail)

This is the story of a fifteen year old girl who ran  away from her single mother. And she's way too smart, spirited, and athletic to be called ordinary.  She had no money, no plans, no friends, and no destination. Soon she was walking the strip in Las Vegas - with all the dreadful consequences that one might imagine.  It's not that she wanted to become a prostitute - but she was thrilled about becoming a sexually attractive woman --just like her mother whose life followed the sexual ettraction that men felt when they looked at her.

It's also a story about race in America.  The mom was German/Irish; the birth father (whom we never meet) was African American.  So JJ moves fluidly between both worlds - as well as among Hispanics whom she resembles.  As she tells it, most of crazy people she meets are white --  most of the depraved  are black -- and most of the kind and noble are Mexican.  If this is racial stereotyping, it's also probably how one bi-racial girl experienced  life on the streets of America.

Most of  all, this is the story of a spiritual journey.  J.J comes close to death many times - but whether someone miraculously saves her or she has to dive out a car window to escape a madman, the universe always seems to find a way for her to survive  and ultimately become an artist and teacher. The  sharpness of the detail in her recollections is amazing - though many of the characters appear wacky and exaggerated enough to belong in fantasy fiction.

Those, like myself, who are familiar with the author as a  passionate and soulful singer/songwriter, will probably be fascinated by the circumstances of her first creative endeavors. Having abandoned any hope of escaping her mother by moving out to the streets, JJ ensconces herself in her bedroom.  And that's  when sexy, romantic pop songs  begin to effortlessly flow from her fingers.

As a young woman desperately trying to  survive her teenage years, it's not surprising that JJ is not much concerned with her mother except as an adversary.  But mom wrote songs and appears to have been growing up as well. She stops bringing home men, can hold multiple jobs, and tries to be a responsible, if clueless, parent.  I wish we'd seen more of her story.

The final paragraph suggests that a sequel will follow -- but the best sequel, for those unfamiliar with Ms. Maze's  music, is to listen to it.

With all of the drama,  wackiness, sex, and violence -- this book  is difficult to stop reading - except during those passages that describe events that may be too horrible to be tolerated.  Not for the faint of heart or squeamish/.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Toer : All That is Gone

Blora, Java

In this 1952 collection of early short stories, written soon after independence, the first story, which gives its title to the entire collection, is the most charming.  It's a young man's nostalgic reminiscence of his early childhood in Blora- abruptly swept away by a decade of war and chaos.

It's also the only story that gives any hint of the great novels that will be published thirty years later.

The stories that follow are grim and depressing - until the final story which plays with the author's identity as a  professional writer.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Toer : Buru Quartet

Tirto Adhi Soerjo

As finally explained in the preface to book three ("Footsteps"), the hero of these books, Minke, is based on the life of Tirto Adhi Soerjo, a high-born Javanese who, like Minke, also went to medical school and founded a newspaper aimed at educated natives.  Unfortunately, he was also stripped of his assets and sent into exile by Dutch authorities without access to a judicial process. In a fascinating twist to the narrative, the final book, "House of Glass" is narrated by the Eurasian operative  who orchestrated that police state undercover activity.  Needless to say, my eyes were glued to the text on each and every page as he re-told Minke's earlier story from his point of view.

I'm sure that there are many other  Romantic novels of national liberation -- there are so many possible settings: Egypt, India, Vietnam, South Africa etc.  But so far, the only other example that I have read is Anisul Hoque's  "Freedom's Mother"  (Bangladesh).  So I can't really assert that the Buru Quartet is the best of its kind.  But it may be.

What's remarkable about these books is that they focus on a leader rather than a follower of a liberation movement -- and it feels authentic, at both the personal and the ideological level.  I felt connected to people who were both real and extraordinary -- as well as to a moment in political history - of the world as well as Indonesia. The author devotes many pages to ideological explanations delivered  from the lips of those whom Minke recognizes as experts.

These books were accused of being pro-Communist and so were banned for twenty years by the Suharto administration.  Their events occur during the Bolshevik revolution and do not comment upon it.  However one of Minke's experts does deliver a very convincing explanation for the role of capitalism in Dutch colonialism despite the ideals of political freedom inherent in the world's first modern republic.

Especially remarkable is the author's celebration of European culture.  His  story concerns the liberation of native Javanese, both personal and collective, but they only succeed insofar as their minds become European.  That theme is repeated over and over by both narrators, Minke, the first  native graduate of the local Dutch high school,  as well as his nemesis, the Eurasian policeman, who went to university in France.

Political liberation may be the main  theme here - but sexual behavior is not ignored.  Minke is a lady's man -and his life story is inseparable from his three marriages -- all of them to beautiful, smart, headstrong young woman: a Eurasian, a Chinese, and a Javanese princess.  The policeman's life is also strongly connected to women: his French wife who left him when he turned alcoholic, and the courtesan concerning whom he was successfully blackmailed after she was mysteriously murdered.

As one of the pundits declares (was it the policeman?) : the Javanese might have achieved more if they weren't so interested in sex.

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.