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.

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.

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