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, 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.