April-June 2013 Theme Read: South East Asia

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April-June 2013 Theme Read: South East Asia

Edited: Mar 17, 2013, 12:34 am

This thread is for books from and about Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Timor Leste, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Most of these countries are covered on this thread, but the Philippines is here.

Edited: Mar 17, 2013, 4:00 am

South East Asia is a place which has experienced several great classical kingdoms (most obviously the Khmers, who built Angkor Wat, but there were a number of others across continental South East Asia, and trading empires in maritime South East Asia) and where three world religions (Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam) have met and mixed. It now has some huge and fast-growing countries - Indonesia is the fourth most populous country in the world, and Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand are also in the top twenty.

Preparing for this theme I have been very struck by how little translated fiction is available from this part of the world. I suppose lack of translation capacity is one reason, along with relatively low levels of understanding in the West of these countries and their history. After all, even for somewhere like India, the vast majority of what's available is written in English, rather than translated.

What there is in English can broadly be divided into the following categories:

- traditional epics and myth, often based on the Ramayana, which was indigenised slightly differently in each of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Indonesia

- anti-colonial and immediately post-colonial literature which was influential in developing a sense of national identity, such as Jose Rizal's Noli Me Tangere or Pramoedya Ananta Toer's Buru Quartet

- recent fiction, often written in English by English-speaking writers from the region (Tan Twan Eng) or by first- or second-generation migrants now living in English speaking countries

However, there is some translated work out there, including from specialist small presses - and the existence of ebooks has made these more accessible and cheaper than they would previously have been. For example, the Lontar Press' Modern Library Of Indonesia books are all available on Amazon.

In the list below I have focused mainly on books by authors from these countries, some of which are partly set elsewhere. I've also included some 'classic' fiction by outsiders, mostly dating from the colonial era, and some key non-fiction introductions to the countries. If I really can't find much by writers from that country, I've mentioned a couple by foreigners.

I'm looking forward to hearing what others have found.

Edited: Mar 17, 2013, 4:02 am

Brunei - I'm afraid I've drawn a complete blank on anything from Brunei so far...

Burma (Myanmar)

Colonial classic - Burmese Days by George Orwell, a novel inspired by Orwell's time working as a colonial civil servant in Burma (then part of British India)

Fiction -
Smile As They Bow by Nu Nu Yi
The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh
 (Indian) a family saga covering the broad sweep from the British invasion of Mandalay in 1885 until the present day

Non-fiction - several memoirs by political activists and/or about the political repression in Burma - eg From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey by Pascal Khoo Thwe
, a student activist.

History - The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma by Thant Myint-U - a history focused on the last 60 years, from the grandson of former UN Secretary General U-Thant.


Fiction - haven't found anything yet

Non-fiction - several memoirs of the genocide including:

Broken Glass Floats

Stay Alive, My Son

First They Killed My Father

The Gate by Francois Bizot
 - a memoir of the time in 1971 when Francois Bizot an enthnologist living and working in Cambodia was imprisoned for suspicion of spying for the CIA. During his three months in prison he got to know his captor Comrade Duch, previously a school teacher, who would go on to become the chief interrogator for the Khmer Rouge.
The Lost Executioner by Nic Dunlop
 - a biography of the same Comrade Duch, head of the Khmer Rouge's secret police and responsible for the death of over 20,000 people. After the collapse of the regime Duch disappeared until photographer Dunlop tracked him down.

General history - Phnom Penh: A Cultural & Literary History by Milton Osborne
The Tragedy of Cambodian History by David P. Chandler (covering the time from the end of WWII until the Vietnamese invasion in 1979, particularly focusing on the civil war and the rule of Pol Pot.


Fiction -
Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925–2006) - his works span the colonial period, Indonesia's struggle for independence, its occupation by Japan during the Second World War, as well as the post-colonial authoritarian regimes of Sukarno and Suharto, and are infused with personal and national history. His most famous work, The Buru Quartet, which starts with This Earth of Mankind, was written in prison. Not permitted access to writing materials, he recited the story orally to other prisoners before it was written down and smuggled out. Exile is a collection of conversations with him on politics, postcolonialism and Indonesian cultural identity.

Mochtar Lubis (1922-2004) - a journalist whose novel Twilight In Jakarta was the first Indonesian novel to be translated into English.

Modern fiction -
Of Bees And Mist - Erick Setiawan (born in Jakarta, Indonesia, to Chinese parents, moved to the US in 1991).
Saman by Ayu Utami (born 1968 in West Java)
Telegram by Putu Wijaya
The Rainbow Troops by Andrea Hirata
Jazz, Perfume and the Incident by Seno Gumira Ajidarma - an Indonesian journalist writing about East Timor

Colonial-era writing -
Max Havelaar: Or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company by Multatuli - a shocking novel in its day, written by a Dutch colonialist in protest against the way that the Dutch administration exploited indigenous farmers.
An Outcast of the Islands by Joseph Conrad - a Westerner flees from a scandal in Singapore and ends up in a native Indonesian village.
The Hidden Force (1900) by Louis Couperus - set at the height of Dutch colonial rule in the East Indies, this novel portrays the clash between Western rationalism and indigenous mysticism.
Faded Portraits by E. Breton De Nijs - a fictionalised memoir of colonial life in the Dutch East Indies.


Fiction - Mother's Beloved: Stories from Laos - Bnounyavong Outhine

Non-fiction - A History of Laos by Martin Stuart-Fox


Fiction -
The Gift Of Rain and The Garden Of Evening Mists - Tan Twan Eng
The Harmony Silk Factory and Map Of The Invisible World - Tash Aw

Evening Is the Whole Day by Preeta Samarasan
Green is the Colour by Lloyd Fernando (apparently these are the only two Malaysian novels which look at the 1969 race riots)

No Harvest But A Thorn - Shahnon Ahmad
Little Hut Of Leaping Fishes - Chiew-Siah Tei
Kampung Boy, a memoir - Lat

The Malayan Trilogy by Anthony Burgess (British, lived for some time in Malaya) - three novels set in post-war Malaysia which chart the demise of the British Empire.

Edited: Mar 17, 2013, 3:56 am


Noli Me Tangere - José Rizal - an influential anti-colonialist classic
The Rosales Saga by F. Sionil José, a historical epic starting in the late 19th century - and other books by the same author
Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco
Banana Heart Summer, Fish-Hair Woman and The Solemn Lantern Maker by Merlinda Bobis
Dogeaters (and several other books) by Jessica Hagedorn
Soledad's Sister by Jose Y. Dalisay
Great Philippine Jungle Energy Cafe (and several other books) by Alfred A Yuson


The Bondmaid and several others by Catherine Lim
Shirley Lim
Lions In Winter, The Proper Care Of Foxes and Biophilia by Wena Poon
Mammon Inc. and Foreign Bodies by Hwee Hwee Tan
The Thorn of Lion City by Lucy Lum

Colonial life - The Singapore Grip by J.G. Farrell

Timor Leste

Nothing by Timorese authors, but three books by foreigners:
No-Name Bird by Josef Gert Vondra
The Canal House by Mark Lee, an American reporter
The Redundancy Of Courage by Hong Kong/Brit Timothy Mo


Sightseeing by Rattawut Lapcharoensap - short stories set in modern-day Thailand.
Four Reigns, a historical novel of life in the Royal Palace, from traditional times through the to the second half of the twentieth century, by Kukrit Pramoj, who was Prime Minister of Thailand in the mid-1970s.

Other authors who appear to have books translated into English: 

Prabhassorn Sevikul

Chart Korbjitti

Jane Vejjajiva

Pira Sudham

History -
A History of Thailand by Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit

Bangkok: A Cultural and Literary History by Maryvelma O'Neil


Fiction -
Paradise Of The Blind and several others by Dương Thu Hương
The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh
The Dragon Prince: Stories & Legends from Vietnam by Thich Nhat Hanh
(I think only these three were written in Vietnamese - the ones below were written in English - please correct me if I am wrong)

Daughters Of The River Huong by Uyen Nicole Duong (and two others in the same series)
Grass Roof, Tin Roof by Dao Strom
Ru by Kim Thúy (born 1968 in Saigon, now living in Canada, writing in French)
Monkey Bridge by Lan Cao
The Gangster We Are All Looking For by Lê Thị Diễm Thúy
The Book Of Salt and Bitter In The Mouth by Monique Truong

Region-wide reading

The Inspector Singh series by Shamini Flint, a Singapore writer whose detective novels are set all over South East Asia

Madeleine Thien is a Canadian of Malaysian origin, and has written books set in Malaysia (Certainty) and Cambodia (Dogs At The Perimeter).

Minfong Ho was born in Burma and raised in Thailand, and her books are set in various parts of South East Asia.

Far Eastern Tales and More Far Eastern Tales - colonial-era short stories by Somerset Maugham.

Edited: Mar 17, 2013, 4:10 am

Further resources for South East Asian reading

A book blog by a Brit living in Malaysia for the last 26 years, with coverage of SEA literature

A couple of academic syllabi for SEA literature courses

An LT group Indonesiana (dormant)
The Singapore Lit Prize LT page

I'll add more as I find them.

Edited: Mar 17, 2013, 4:22 am

My planned reads:

Max Havelaar (Indonesia)
The Scent Of The Gods by Fiona Cheong (Singapore)
Saman (Indonesia)
Banana Heart Summer (Philippines)
An Outcast Of The Islands (Indonesia)
The Garden Of Evening Mists (Malaysia)

America's Boy (about Marcos) and Playing With Water (memoir) by James Hamilton-Paterson
Subversion As Foreign Policy: The Secret Eisenhower and Dulles Debacle in Indonesia by Audrey R. Kahin and George McT. Kahin
A House In Bali by Colin McPhee
In The Time Of Madness by Richard Lloyd Parry (journalism, Indonesia)

These are based on what I have on my shelves at the moment. You may be able to guess which ones are left over from a course I did on South East Asian Government And Politics in (urk) 1998. It's a good thing to be getting round to them 15 years later....

Edited: Mar 17, 2013, 4:11 am


Mar 17, 2013, 7:30 am

Thanks for all this great research, wandering_star, and for getting us started on an interesting quarterly read. I'll post the link on the group page.

Edited: Mar 17, 2013, 7:36 am

Well done, Margaret! I plan to read these books from my TBR collection for this theme:

     Evening Is the Whole Day by Preeta Samarasan (Malaysia)
     The Gangster We Are All Looking For by Lê Thị Diễm Thúy (Vietnam)
     The Harmony Silk Factory by Tash Aw (Malaysia)
     Noli Me Tangere by José Rizal (Phillipines)
     The Redundancy of Courage by Timothy Mo (Timor-Leste)
     The Singapore Grip by J.G. Farrell (Singapore)

     A House in Bali by Colin McPhee (Indonesia)

I'll probably also read Burmese Days and The Glass Palace.

Recommended books:
     The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng
     The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng
     Map of the Invisible World by Tash Aw

Edited: Mar 17, 2013, 10:53 am

Great suggestions. In addition to the ones from the Philippines, I recommend the following. I’ve read and own some of these; the rest are from my wish list.

America Is in the Heart - Carlos Bulosan
Awaiting Trespass - Linda Ty-Casper
Baby Jesus Pawn Shop - Lucia Orth
The Bamboo Dancers - N. V. M. Gonzalez
Banyaga: A Song of War - Charlson Ong
Below the Crying Mountain - Criselda Yabes
But for the Lovers - Wilfrido D. Nolledo
The Disinherited - Han Ong
Eating Fire and Drinking Water - Arlene J. Chai
Empire of Memory - Eric Gamalinda
Farah - Edilberto K. Tiempo
Ghosts of Manila - James Hamilton Paterson
The Gold in Makiling - Macario Pineda, trans. Soledad S. Reyes
Gun Dealers' Daughter - Gina Apostol
The Hand of the Enemy - Kerima Polotan
His Native Coast - Edith L. Tiempo
Leche - R. Zamora Linmark
Letters to Montgomery Clift - Noel Alumit
Longitude: A Novel - Carlos Cortes
Margosatubig: The Story of Salagunting - Ramon L. Muzones, trans. Ma. Cecilia Locsin Nava
Recuerdo (Philippine Writers Series) - Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo
Salamanca - Dean Francis Alfar
Samboangan: The Cult of War - Antonio R. Enriquez
Smaller and Smaller Circles - F. H. Batacan
Viajero - F. Sionil Jose
Twice Blessed - Ninotchka Rosca
Villa Magdalena - Bienvenido N. Santos
Without Seeing the Dawn - Stevan Javellana
The Woman Who Had Two Navels - Nick Joaquin
Women of Tammuz - Azucena Grajo Uranza

Edited: Mar 17, 2013, 12:52 pm

Margaret, I appreciate the wonderful introduction to South East Asia. I'd forgotten that this was coming up this year and thus have done some jumping ahead, but still have lots to keep my busy.

There is at least one fiction book about Cambodia In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner, the daughter of a prince of the ancient Imperial family, who wrote a novel loosely based on her family's experiences at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. I've read and recommend it.

If one wants a British view of 1800s Colonial Burma, there is The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason. Certainly not a translated work by a native, but beautifully written and gives a good taste of that time in history from the British perspective.

On Vietnam I've read and recommend The Monkey Bridge (touchstone wrong) by Lan Cao and The North China Lover by Marguerite Duras in fiction and Catfish and Mandala by Andrew X. Pham in nonfiction (travel). About the Vietnam War I've also read The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien and a nonfiction book about nurses in the Vietnam War, the name of which escapes me. Both were excellent.

On my shelves I have and hope to read:

The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng (The Garden of the Evening Mists was wonderful)
The Gate by Francois Bizot

I'm sure I'll get some great suggestions from the above.

Mar 17, 2013, 12:57 pm

#10, as a native of the Philippines, where would you suggest I begin my reading? There is so much to choose from and 5-6 suggestions would be helpful, especially since some may be difficult to get. Thanks.

Edited: Mar 17, 2013, 9:53 pm

Hi, Maggie. I think the good places to start are the ones listed by Margaret in #5, especially Noli Me Tangere, Soledad's Sister, and Tree, F. Sionil José (in Don Vicente). In addition: America Is in the Heart by Carlos Bulosan, Salamanca by Dean Francis Alfar, and Recuerdo, Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo.

Mar 17, 2013, 10:10 pm

Another excellent story about Vietnam is The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam.

Mar 18, 2013, 9:25 am

Wonderful list w_s! I'm really looking forward to this quarter's discussions.

For Cambodia, I would also suggest two older books by William Shawcross, both very detailed: Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia and The Quality of Mercy: Cambodia, Holocaust and Modern Conscience. Then there is François Ponchaud's memoir Cambodia: Year Zero.

I only bought two books for this read (so far), as one will take a long time: The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-79 by Ben Kiernan. The other one you mentioned already, Paradise of the Blind. The Gate is on my TBR pile. I suspect there will be more.

Ru has now been translated into English.

Glad to see The Malayan Trilogy there. I read it a long time ago and thought it was great.

Just occurred to me too, for Vietnam, although not a Vietnamese writer, but a great book, Graham Greene's The Quiet American, which was one of Michael Caine's best roles.

A WWII memoir of Malaysia, Eric Lomax, The Railway Man

>11 whymaggiemay: maggie, was the book on nurses Nurses in Vietnam: The Forgotten Veterans? I found this in a used book store in September but haven't read it yet. There is also 365 Days by an army surgeon.

Mar 18, 2013, 11:59 am

#13, Rise, thank you for the list. I'll definitely see what I can find written in English.

#15, SassyLassy, I looked up the nurses book. It was A Piece of My Heart: The Stories of 26 American Women Who Served in Vietnam by Keith Walker. It was interesting because some of them were Red Cross workers, diplomats, or others in Vietnam, not serving in the military. Most of them had suffered PTS as a result of their experiences.

Mar 18, 2013, 12:14 pm

I enjoyed The Blue Afternoon by William Boyd. Parts of this novel are set in Manila in 1902, during the US occupation of the Philippines. It will not be the same as reading a translated work, but this book is vividly written and gave me some insight into that period.

Mar 18, 2013, 6:12 pm

I plan to read The Rice Mother by Rani Manicka, a Malaysian author. Although she currently lives in the England, and I believe the novel was originally written in English, it's a purely Malaysian novel.

Mar 19, 2013, 9:09 am

Thanks for all these, and especially the Cambodia fiction recommendation - nice to fill a gap. I recommend Evening Is the Whole Day and The Railway Man, and I think the Ben Kiernan book was one of the ones I actually read when I was doing the course!

I also have A House in Bali and will plan to get to it this quarter.

Mar 19, 2013, 9:41 am

So much to choose from.

I have read one book by a contemporary Vietnamese author who immigrated to Paris, The Three Fates by Linda Le. I've read excellent books by Americans about Vietnam and the Vietnamese war and would definitely like to read some from the Vietnamese perspective, i.e., about the American war. And I'd like to explore some other parts of Southeast Asia too.

Edited: Mar 19, 2013, 10:59 am

Thich Nhat Hanh had some very disturbing comments about American policy and participation in the Vietnam war in one of his books that I read. They were very brief, actually only a sidebar comment. But, I think I'll pursue something by him about the war. I've read several of his books on Buddhism, but none on the war. Since Martin Luther King, Jr endorsed his nomination of the Nobel Peace Prize in regard to his activity during the war, it should be interesting reading. I've also not read any of his fiction or short stories. If anyone has suggestions, I'd love to hear them. That man's output is phenomenal!

ETA: I'm thinking perhaps Fragrant Palm Leaves: Journals, 1962-1966 or The Moon Bamboo.

Mar 20, 2013, 4:38 pm

For additional Singapore reads, I would recommend Tanamera by Noel Barber, The Red Thread : A Chinese Tale of Love and Fate in 1830s Singapore by Farnham Dawn, Battle for Singapore by Peter Thompson.

I have Lee's Lieutenants in my TBR Tower that I will be planning to read for this challenge.

For Indonesia, I'd recommend Island of Demons by Nigel Barley.

Mar 22, 2013, 12:10 am

Nice job on the thread wandering star! I am looking forward to the reading.
Of the books mentioned, I have read Garden of the Evening Mists which is beautiful. Also, I would recommend When Broken Glass Floats which is a very well-writtne book about growing up under the Khmer Rouge. THe author, Chanrithy Him is also a Portland girl. Her family immigrated to Portland and she went to high school a few miles from my house.

My planned reads are:
The Gift of Rain
The Harmony Silk Factory by Tash Aw
The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam

The Beauty of Humanity Movement by Camilla GIbb
and In the Shadow of the Banyan

Mar 22, 2013, 8:33 am

Two brilliant reads:

The Lizard's Cage - Karen Connelly (Burma)
- Review at: http://lizzysiddal.wordpress.com/2007/08/12/the-lizard-cage-karen-connelly/

The Garden of Evening Mists - Tan Twan Eng (Malaysia)
Review at:

Mar 22, 2013, 12:23 pm

Well, I've succumbed to Amazon and ordered the following books: Smile as they Bow by Nu Nu Yi, The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam by Bao Ninh, and This Earth of Mankind by Pramoedya Ananta Toer.

Mar 22, 2013, 7:10 pm

#24, thanks for the reminder of The Lizard's Cage, I have it on Mt. TBR and will consider it for this read.

Mar 27, 2013, 1:20 am

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai and Last Night I Dreamed of Peace by Dang Thuy Tram, both about Vietnam, were books I found rewarding last year.

Mar 27, 2013, 2:33 am

> 21 streamsong. There used to be a video documentary somewhere on the Internet about Thich Nhat Hanh's experience of the Viet Nam war. I've just made a quick search and can't immediately find it - maybe other know where to find it?

As I remember, it was over an hour long and filmed by a US Viet Nam vet who is now a follower of TNH. Although TNH practised and advocated forgiveness, he did not pull his punches in describing the suffering he had witnessed at the hands of the US military. I found the film very moving - inspiring. It would make good background for reading about Viet Nam, or for studying TNH.

Apr 1, 2013, 12:31 am

If you're looking for books from the region, especially Cambodia and Laos, I recommend Monument Books: http://monument-books.com/ . Their interface is often slow. If you're in Cambodia or Laos (or the Siem Reap or Phnom Penh airports), their bookstores are great fun. They have a good range of regional non-fiction. I've read and reviewed a fair amount about Cambodia, though I haven't yet dared look at whether my shelf labels from Goodreads have converted to tags here.

Apr 1, 2013, 7:13 am

Welcome to LT and to Reading Globally, OshoOsho! It's great to have someone with your reading experience here, especially for this Theme Read.

Apr 1, 2013, 5:09 pm

I'm happy to be here.

Apr 4, 2013, 11:08 pm

That's great OshoOsho. I would like to read more non-fiction about Cambodia, if you have recommendations.

Apr 4, 2013, 11:08 pm

In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner

This is an autobiographical novel. Vaddey Ratner was 5 when the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975. Her family was Cambodian royalty and used to a privileged life in a loving family. She spent the next four years in forced labor, starvation and near execution. She survived, though many family members perished, and arrived in the US in 1981.

I was somewhat frustrated with this novel, and if you are going to read one book on growing up under the Khmer Rouge, I recommend When Broken Glass Floats by Chanrithy Him. Him’s book is a memoir, rather than a novel, which I feel works better for a writer who is mainly trying to bear witness to the horrors of an oppressive regime. In a novel, one expects plot and character development; a memoir can focus only on a story of survival against great odds. Also, Him’s writing style is more direct. When I read her book, I felt I had a much greater understanding of what it’s like to be so hungry that you will eat bugs, grubs, or whatever you can find. The craziness randomness of the regime, which, in addition to killing many, many people, also destroyed its own country’s economic and agricultural infrastructure was better illustrated. Him also described life in the refugee camps, which Ratner does not.

Another frustration with Ratner’s work is that her narrator’s voice did not ring true. Raami’s voice simply seems to sophisticated and too selfless for that of a young child.

On the positive side: I think that this story is very close to Ratner’s own experiences and is quite accurate, other than my quibble with the narrator’s voice. Her experiences were really similar to Him’s. Ratner does do a good job of showing the contrast between Raami’s previous life as a princess, and her life under the Khmer Rouge.

The strongest part of this book is Ratner’s description of her father and her relationship with him. Sisowath Ayuravann does seem to have been a remarkable man. He was a poet who told his daughter many stories. Ratner has the father tell Raami “I told you stories to give you wings, Raami, so that you would never be trapped by anything—your name, your title, the limits of your body, this world’s suffering.”

Apr 5, 2013, 8:00 am

Interesting review, Banjo, and also thanks for the comparison to the memoir.

Apr 5, 2013, 8:16 am

I really enjoyed your review and I have added When Broken Glass Floats to my TBR pile. Wondering if you've read First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung which received similar criticisms to the ones you discuss with regard to voice.

Edited: Apr 5, 2013, 9:02 am

Last night I finished an Early Reviewers copy of Five Star Billionaire by the Malaysian author Tash Aw, a superb novel about five Malaysian emigrants in modern day Shanghai. I'm not sure where I should post my review, though; the author and characters are Malaysian, and it could go here, but the story is mainly about Shanghai, with only oblique references to Malaysia, so it seems as though the recent theme on China and neighboring countries would be a better fit. Thoughts?

Apr 5, 2013, 9:12 am

Kidzdoc-- How about both?

Sounds like a very interesting premise. Wherever you place it, I'll look forward to your review.

Apr 5, 2013, 9:18 am

Darryl - Maybe you can edit your posting here to include a link to your thread's review.

Apr 5, 2013, 9:38 am

>37 streamsong: How about both?

I thought about that too, streamsong, as I could make an equally valid argument for posting my review in either theme. I'm working on my review now, and I'll post it later today, or tomorrow at the latest.

>38 plt: Good thought, Peg. If I decide to post my review in the China and neighboring countries thread I'll at least post a link to it here. According to the cover, Five Star Billionaire won't be available in the US until July 2nd, but it was published in the UK in late February. It's nearly 400 pages long, and I read all but the first 50 or so pages in a single sitting yesterday afternoon and evening.

Apr 5, 2013, 9:41 am

Glad to hear that it was such a great book Darryl - it's the next one up for me.

Apr 5, 2013, 10:24 am

I usually go by the national origin of the author, but that's just me.

Apr 5, 2013, 10:35 am

>41 rebeccanyc: That was the basis of my argument for posting my review of Five Star Billionaire here, Rebecca. However, a book like The Singapore Grip by J.G. Farrell, which I'll read for this theme, would seem to be more appropriately placed under Singapore rather than England, which would be my argument for posting my review of Aw's latest book in the China and neighboring countries thread. I'll probably post it in both places.

Edited: Apr 6, 2013, 7:37 am

Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw

Shanghai is a beautiful place, but it is also a harsh place. Life here is not really life, it is a competition.

Shanghai is the world's largest city, with a total population of over 23 million. It can arguably claim to be the city of the 21st century, similar to 19th century London and 20th century New York, as it is a booming financial, commercial and entertainment center that attracts emigrants and visitors from every continent, and it is the leading symbol of the new China and its growing influence on Asia and the rest of the world.

Tash Aw was born in Taipei to Malaysian parents, grew up in Kuala Lumpur, was educated in the UK, and lived in London before he moved to Shanghai after he was chosen to be the first M Literary Writer in Residence in 2010. In this superb novel, he portrays five Malaysian Chinese who have moved to Shanghai to seek the wealth and prestige that the city seems to offer to each of its newcomers.

Phoebe is a naïve and uneducated young woman from the Malaysian countryside, who emigrates illegally to China on the suggestion of a friend, but soon after she arrives she finds that the dream job she was promised has suddenly vanished. Justin is the eldest son of a wealthy real estate tycoon, charged with purchasing a property in Shanghai that will save his family from ruin in the face of the Asian financial crisis. Gary is a pop mega-star who performs in front of thousands of adoring fans, while battling internal demons that threaten to destroy his career. Yinghui is the daughter of a prominent family in Kuala Lumpur who transforms herself from a left wing political activist into a hard nosed and successful businesswoman. Finally, Walter is a secretive and shadowy figure who has risen up from the ashes of his father's ruin to become a prominent developer and the anonymous author of the best selling book "How to Become a Five Star Billionaire". The first four characters are all interlinked with Walter, the only person given a voice in the first person in the book, in an intricately woven web that slowly tightens around each of them.

Through these characters, Tash Aw provides a fascinating internal glimpse into modern Shanghai, a city filled with ambitious but often lonely and desperate people from all over Asia whose singular focus on material goods and wealth outweighs love and personal happiness. Anything and anyone is fair game for exploitation and deceit, and the widespread availability of counterfeit watches, purses and clothing mimics the superficiality of the city's high stakes capitalist culture. Self help books such as the one written by Walter are the bibles of the young up-and-comers, and traditional Chinese culture is viewed as outdated and stifling to young people like Phoebe.

Each one attains some degree of success, but several meet with sudden and spectacular failure, in the matter of a climber that reaches the summit of a mountain only to be blown off of it entirely by a sudden gust of wind.

The city held its promises just out of your reach, waiting to see how far you were willing to go to get what you wanted, how long you were prepared to wait. And until you determined the parameters of your pursuit, you would be on edge, for despite the restaurants and shops and art galleries and sense of unbridled potential, you would always feel that Shanghai was accelerating a couple of steps ahead of you, no matter how hard you worked or played. The crowds, the traffic, the impenetrable dialect, the muddy rains that carried the remnants of the Gobi Desert sandstorms and stained your clothes every March: The city was teasing you, testing your limits, using you. You arrived thinking you were going to use Shanghai to get what you wanted, and it would be some time before you realized that it was using you, that it had already moved on and you were playing catch up.

Five Star Billionaire is a captivating work about Shanghai and the new China, and the lives of five talented and determined people who seek wealth and fulfillment but find loneliness and misery instead. I read nearly all of this novel in a single sitting, and I was quite sorry to see it end. I also loved Tash Aw's previous novel Map of the Invisible World, and I look forward to reading The Harmony Silk Factory later this year.

Edited: Apr 7, 2013, 1:13 pm


Smile As They Bow by Nu Nu Yi
Cross-posted from my Club Read and 75 Books threads

Well, the best thing about this novella was the picture it painted of an unfamiliar (to me) culture, specifically the festivals honoring nats (or spirits) in Taungbyon, Burma, and the natkadaws, or spirit wives, now mostly transvestites but historically women, who "embody" the spirits and make and distribute a lot of money in the process. Through the thoughts and actions of the primary character, a transvestite known as Daisy Bond, as well as those of several secondary characters, the reader sees how the natkadaws acquire and manage their followers, largely wealthy women, who shower them with gifts and money so the spirits they channel will bring them even more wealth and success; the competition for placement in the processions to the various temples over the course of the seven-day festival; the difficulties of aging; the struggles of the poor through begging and through actually being sold to wealthier people; and the way the festival has started attracting tourists from all over, as well as all those who would like to make money from them, including trinket-sellers and pickpockets.

All of this is interesting in an anthropological way, but as a story it bordered on the soap-operaish. It was also interesting to have a picture of life in Burma/Myanmar apart from the political oppression that is more familiar to those of us in the west. Nu Nu Yi is apparently a popular and prolific writer in Burma/Myanmar, but this is her only work to have been translated into English; it was short-listed for the Man Asia literary prize.

Needless to say, I have no familiarity with Burmese, and the translation, by another Burmese woman and a man who has spent a lot of time there, seemed generally OK to me. But I was struck by references to people born on certain days of the week, which apparently has some astrological or zodiacal significance, because they used our western names for the days. I looked this up on Wikipedia, and there is a correlation between the Burmese system and our system, but I found the use of western names for the days jarring and would have preferred the translators to keep the Burmese words as they did for various other spirit-related terminology.

For more information on nats and nat festivals, see this Wikipedia article. I also note on the web that there are quite a few travel agencies offering trips to the Taungbyon festival. There's no business like (religious) show business!

Apr 8, 2013, 10:27 pm


Paradise of the Blind by Duong Thu Huong
First published in Vietnamese 1988
English translation by Phan Huy Duong and Nina McPherson 1993


Paradise of the Blind tells the story of a Vietnamese woman named Hang growing up in Hanoi in the 1970s and 1980s. Her life reflects the painful conflicts between the deep-rooted traditions and family values of Vietnam's rural past and the harsh, often hypocritical policies and attitudes of its socialist present.

The novel opens with Hang, who is an "imported worker" at a textile plant somewhere in Russia, being summoned to the bedside of her ailing uncle in Moscow. Though Hang is herself quite ill, it is her duty to obey. On the long train journey she reflects back upon her childhood and youth.

Hang grew up the illegitimate and only child of her mother, Que, who works as a street vendor in Hanoi. They live a hand-to-mouth existence in a filthy slum under a leaky tar paper roof. Que lives a simple life "according to proverbs and duties." When her brother, Hang's uncle Chinh, a minor party official, demands money or food, Que obeys even if she and Hang must go hungry.

The other woman in Hang's life is the sister of the father she never knew, her Aunt Tam. Where Que is resigned and fatalistic, Tam is hopeful and defiant. She fights the system that has robbed her family of its former wealth and position, slowly battling her way back to prosperity for the sake of Hang, her only living relative. "It was through her," says Hang, "that I knew the tenderness of this world, and through her too that I was linked to the chains of my past, to the pain of existence." Hang is caught between her filial obligations to her mother, her emotional ties to Aunt Tam, and the demands of society represented by Uncle Chinh.

The novel was first published and sold in Vietnam, then banned. This suggests that the author's depiction of Vietnamese life is right on the borderline of what was considered tolerable at that time. She doesn't criticize the communist system itself, but shows the failures of its policies and the hypocrisy and corruption they engendered. Poverty, malnutrition and a lack of sanitation are everywhere evident, even (and this is most surprising) in the homes of party officials.

But there are bright moments in which we get a look at the traditions of Vietnamese folk life, especially the food. The preparation of everything from simple fare to elaborate feasts is described in considerable detail. Some of the dishes are mouth-watering and tempt the reader to try following the cooking instructions. Others are more daunting, such as Hang's favorite delicacy, a pudding made of congealed duck's blood topped with liver, garlic and peanuts. There is even a glossary of Vietnamese words that is devoted mostly to culinary terms.

Paradise of the Blind is a beautifully written account of life in modern Vietnam, as well as a moving story of the struggle we all face to balance the demands of family, self, and society.

Apr 13, 2013, 7:20 am

I hope nobody minds, but I have cross posted a review from my own thread that I read about a year ago. I wouldn't normally do this, but it is the same book that Rebecca reviewed above (message 44) so I thought I would add my thoughts. I think its fair to say that my review is more positive than Rebecca's, though they are broadly similar. I think both of us were interested (and surprised?) by the cultural setting, but neither of us were very impressed with the narrative (described as 'soap-opera ish by her and 'incidental' by me).

Smile as They Bow by Nu Nu Yi

Smile as They bow was short-listed for the Man Asia Literary prize in 2007. The MAL is a newish discovery on my part and, based on the first couple of books I have read that have been nominated, well worth checking out, both in terms of books from countries that are a little off the usual literary map, but also as a source of good literature.

Smile as They Bow is a short novel based around the Taungbyon festival in central Myanmar. The festival is a primarily gay celebration in which transvestites called natkadaw channel spirits called nats to respond to prayers and requests from the public. The story follows a prominent ageing natkadaw called 'Daisy Bond' as he attempts to maintain his eminence among the natkadaw in the face of competition for business and competition for his younger lover. Daisy is a fascinating character, publicly waspish and fiery, privately vulnerable, he abuses his friends and the general public but desperately needs their approval and attention. Over the course of a couple of days of the festival, Daisy is forced to work harder than ever before to cling to his relationships and his position of power at Taungbyon.

I really enjoyed Smile as They Bow. For such a small book, Nu Nu Yi manages to develop Daisy's character wonderfully well. The festival is also enchanting, with all the kitsch and flamboyance of a pride carnival, but with a strong spiritual aspect thrown in. The narrative itself (i.e. Daisy's attempts to cling to his power and his lover) is almost incidental to the descriptions of the setting and characters, but that is in no way detrimental to the book as a whole. Setting, subject matter and author nationality all made this a unique read for me, and it is not one I will forget in a hurry.

It is definitely recommended for anyone looking for a Myanmar book for their reading challenges, but also a general thumbs up as a fascinating short novel.

Apr 13, 2013, 8:08 am

Andy, I had forgotten that you had read this and I enjoyed reading your review (again?). I agree with everything you wrote; I don't think I felt negatively about the book, because it did present such an unfamiliar and surprising cultural event so well even though I felt the plot lacking. And I do agree that Nu Nu Yi developed Daisy's character well. I have to say, though, I found the festival, with its emphasis on money and catering to ever-growing numbers of tourists, more appalling than "enchanting." It made me wonder how much of that is modern and how much goes back to the centuries-old origins of the festival, when women, not transvestites, were the natkadaws.

Apr 25, 2013, 10:30 pm

I read this book in the first quarter.


Salamanca by Dean Francis Alfar (Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2006)

A fecund, oversexed imagination is on display in this first novel by Dean Francis Alfar, the main proponent of speculative fiction in the Philippines. The sorcery of the title refers to the fuel that powers an imaginary Spanish galleon to soar through the skies. The galleon is a fixture in certain fantastical short stories written by Gaudencio Rivera, the bisexual male lead of the novel. His fount of creativity is derived from his love affairs, betrayals, and promiscuity. Lovemaking fuels Gaudencio's haphazard literary activity.

Sometime in the 1950s, Gaudencio runs away from Manila to Palawan Island to escape a love affair gone wrong. There he encounters Jacinta Cordova, a young woman of peerless beauty. "Her beauty was of such purity and perfection that the walls of the house she lived in had turned transparent long ago, to allow both sunlight and moonlight to illuminate her incandescence." This is a love story.

At the moment that their eyes met through the see-through walls of the inconceivable house, Gaudencio dropped the cigarette in his hand as he was devastated by exposure to Jacinta’s luminous beauty. He felt an almost unbearable torrent of words rise up through his body: inarticulate syllables swiftly welled up from the soles of his feet; combining into nouns at his knees, verbs at his loins, adjectives and adverbs by the time they reached his heart; joined by prepositions and conjunctions from his hands and arms; becoming phrases, clauses, then whole sentences when they reached his head, threatening to erupt not only from his lips but also seeking immediate egress from his eyes, ears, and nose; before finally causing his hair to writhe as whole paragraphs, chapters, short stories, novellas, and novels recoiled backwards, suffusing his entire being with the terrible power of unspoken expression.

The magical absurdity of that passage is consistent with the novel's use of lust and love as materials for fictional creation. It is a creative act that expands fictional boundaries, for we are in the territory of magical realism. It is easy to fall prey to the trappings and overused routines of magic. Alfar's beautiful sentences, however, are the building blocks of a luminous structure that is this very novel.

Salamanca manages to convey significant aspects of postwar Philippine history while telling an exuberant tale of love, identity, and exile. The way Alfar intertwined the landmarks and history of the Palawan Island setting into the novel's larger story is particularly awesome (at least to me, who is living in Palawan for almost decade now).

The novel deploys magic as more than an instrument of speculation. Magic is here a transgressive force. The early scene of a powerful storm for instance—wherein the characters, together with their freely flowing hormones, are carried aloft by an accelerating whirlwind—is an outrageous, comic set piece. Unlike the barren magic of popular novelists like Haruki Murakami, the magic in Salamanca is disabused of its false stupefaction.

The seemingly whimsical telling of the plot creates spontaneous magic. Gaudencio exploits his experiences, his loves, and his many betrayals of them—like his betrayal of Jacinta that resulted to their short-lived wedding—as materials for his writing career. Similarly, Alfar churns up new plot elements and characters with the spontaneous resolve of an aesthete. Part of his strength lies in the efficiency of his quick character sketches. Characters are added incrementally, and despite their brief appearances and the spare details about them, the readers feel invested in their stories.

There's a lot to unpack in this short novel which in its own way offers a synthesis of post-war Philippine history, not a magical slice of that history but the whole cake. At the start of the novel, Gaudencio is in the United States, homesick and planning to return to the Philippines to impregnate his estranged wife Jacinta.

Seven years after the complete destruction of Manilaville in Louisiana, the dissolute author Gaudencio Rivera decided to settle the matter of his incoherent sexuality and beget a child. His sudden announcement—made during a dinner party held in Los Angeles—was greeted first with laughter, then moments later with stupefaction, when a minor earthquake struck to seal the veracity of his declaration. As the small party sat under the shuddering table watching the room sway, Gaudencio told them that there came a time in every man’s life to part the gossamer curtain that separated childhood from the real world; that in his case, the moment had been too long in its postponement; that artists—especially gifted writers like himself—while often able to crystallize miraculous observations of mundane things, were sometimes blinded to more important matters; and that, ultimately, women were necessary to continue humanity’s existence, even if, occasionally, men proved to be better bedmates.

Manilaville is a settlement for Filipinos in Louisiana, later destroyed by a powerful hurricane. Gaudencio mirrors the experience of immigrant Filipino writers, those who continue to long for their country even as they seek to establish their literary careers abroad. The name has a correlate with Vietville which also figures in the novel. Vietville is a settlement community of Vietnamese, the first generation of which were Vietnamese refugees who fled their country during the Vietnam War. They arrived by boat to Palawan after a long sea journey. The plight of exiled citizens and writers, what defines their rootedness in a certain home country, is one of the novel's dramatic strands.

This novel is also notable for its bending not only of genre but of gender. "Men, Women and Other Fictions" is the title of the second of three chapters of the novel, indicating how gender is here (almost) ignored as a deterministic criteria in choosing the sexual orientation of characters. The bisexual Gaudencio fills a gender gap in the characterization of male lovers in Philippine literary novels, at least novels of "epic and sprawling" ambition like Salamanca, novels which consciously integrate historical details in their text.

Most significantly, Alfar makes a metaphoric case for sexual appetite as the "life force" of literary imagination.

"Do you still write?" Gaudencio asked him.
"No," Antonio replied with a mischievous smile. "I make babies."
"You really are an artist," Gaudencio said, blinking his eyes ... "Possessed by an imperative to create."

The imagined leap from the promiscuity of procreation to the promiscuity of creativity is one way of looking at art as perpetual giving birth to artworks, the progeny of the imagination. Sexual reproduction as the mode of literary production. The prolific outputs of Gaudencio are direct products of his sexual proclivity. "His muse was the instant of passion", that instant when he "experienced his body's familiar transubstantiation of carnal lust to sublime vocabularies, and he would mentally partition texts as they were composed in his mind". Alfar seems to be hinting that, in the continuing process of national imagining and becoming, the liberal attitudes toward sexuality is the liberating force that makes us aware of the mystery of love and existence.

Self-awareness is a modernist quality of Salamanca. It is a highly aware novel, aware of its opportunistic "exploitation" of human experience as fictional material, of magical elements as a creative force, of the politics of literary creation, of the national literary tradition it seeks to be an essential part of, and of the debilitating histories of colonialism and dictatorship. The witty self-references and historical asides, along with transgressive magic and emotional subtlety, make for a novel of verbal and sensual riches.

One character in the novel describes salamanca as the thing that makes one see what is being described. This is the power of imagery to reveal images from words alone. This is also the power of fiction to portray ideas that reflect the sheen of reality. Through some hitherto unheard of black magic sourced from some enchanted cave, Alfar shows that the novel is a magical thing too—salamanca itself.

Apr 26, 2013, 9:11 am

Great review, and sounds fascinating!

Apr 26, 2013, 9:37 am

Thanks, rebecca. It's an early favorite of mine this year.

Apr 26, 2013, 10:33 am

Rise, do you have a reading thread somewhere? I'd like to see what else you're reading.

Apr 26, 2013, 11:41 am

- 51

Rebecca, I'm also at Club Read 2013 (link).

Apr 26, 2013, 4:30 pm


cross posted from my Club Read page

The Gate by François Bizot, translated from the French by Euan Cameron
first published as Le Portail in 2000

I have written this book in a bitterness that knows no limit.

So said François Bizot in 2000, almost thirty years after the beginning of his riveting encounter with history.

In 1971 Bizot was a committed academic, an ethnologist researching Buddhist artifacts and practices. Unlike many young French intellectuals of the time, he scorned leftist politics and the motives of those who supported anti-colonial insurgencies. He called such people "Lacoutures", a reference to the editor of Le Monde and biographer of Ho Chi Minh. Bizot was based at the Angkor Conservation Office when along with two Cambodian colleagues, he was captured by Khmer Rouge guerrillas in October 1971. The Khmer accused him of being a CIA agent and imprisoned him in a jungle camp under the control of one of the most extraordinary figures of the war, Douch.*

At that time, Douch was an up and coming cadre, who actually believed Bizot's denials of the charges against him. Bizot describes Douch as "...one of those pure, fervent idealists who yearned above all for the truth." The problem for Douch was to formulate Bizot's innocence in such a way that his own superiors would accept it, without suspecting Douch of any untoward western sympathies and without any apparent loss of face for Douch for having this prisoner in the first place, if he was indeed innocent.

Over a period of almost three months, Bizot was questioned repeatedly and made to write a declaration of innocence. Unfortunately, he had initially lied to his captors, making it more difficult for Douch to argue his innocence. As Douch felt more secure in his relations with Bizot, their conversations became more intellectually challenging and rewarding. Bizot the researcher learned of peasant life in central Cambodia. Challenged by Douch to explain his presence and justify his studies, he kept his mind engaged. Douch, in turn, was able to explain his revolutionary commitment and give an insider's view to a foreigner. When Bizot questioned the Khmer revolution and the resulting deaths, Douch countered
For a Frenchman, I find you very timid. Did you yourselves not have a revolution and execute hundreds and hundreds of people? Would you care to tell me when the memory of these victims prevented you from glorifying in your history books the men who founded a new nation that day?

Bizot was released with documents from the United National Front of Kampuchea to be given to the French chargé d'affaires in Phnom Penh. Back in the capitol, Bizot made the decision to stay in Cambodia with his Cambodian wife and their child, despite all the indications of what was to come.

On April 17, 1975, when the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh, Bizot found himself caught up in events once more. The city was in chaos, with more than two million refugees from the countryside. By this time he had sent his child to safety in France. As a fluent speaker of Khmer, he became a go between for the French community, all of whom had taken refuge at the French Embassy along with other Europeans and their Asian staff members on one side, and the Khmer Rouge forces controlling the city on the other side. Food, sanitation, health and security were the major initial concerns for the more than three thousand people on the embassy grounds.

Soon, however, the Khmer demanded that anyone without a European passport be turned over to them. Sirik Matak, leader of the defeated Khmer Republic, and other members of the Cambodian elite, granted an asylum by the French that was overturned by the new regime, were forced to leave and led off to execution. Then the approximately two thousand Asians on the grounds were forced to leave. Bizot was granted leave to scour the city for any Europeans who might wish to seek shelter with the French. Describing these trips, he said
I slipped silently into an immense theater of death. I thought that the prolonged apprehension of so much destruction would soon tip the fragile balance of my sanity. Not a single child, not one living creature. This sudden suspension of life in the heart of what had been the great commercial center of the Mekong Delta -- this city famed for its many and varied activities, it colorful population, its cosmopolitan lifestyle -- struck me as both so incredible and so straightforward that I imagined myself in a dead world, deserted in the wake of some cataclysm, where I, without knowing it, was the only survivor. I shut my eyes and went deep into the entrails of this empty stomach, like someone in a futurist comic strip, and I confess I derived some kind of pleasure from this dark wandering.

On April 30th, the first of two convoys left the embassy for Thailand under the protection of the Khmer Rouge. The numbers at the embassy had been whittled down to 1,046 people, all documented in quadruplicate for the Khmer guards. Six days later the second convoy left. Both arrived safely at the Thai border and the Europeans were able to cross the bridge to safety. Of his own trip across the bridge, Bizot says
I crossed over without looking back. Dusk fell over the land of the Khmer. Where the light had been swallowed away, a thickening darkness filled its space.
Falling upon a world abandoned to dark and terrifying powers, the primitive mob unleashed the horde of dead in the storm we left behind... The thought occurred to me that man is created in the ignoble image of the slaughterman.

In 1988 Bizot returned to Cambodia and went to Tuol Sleng, the processing centre for tens of thousands on the way to their deaths at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. There in the walls of photographs, he found one of Douch, the head torturer. Bizot seems almost anguished at the sight, saying " I could not bring myself to identify the man I had known, who so loved justice, with the head of the torturers of this vile jail, the one responsible for so much infamy. What monstrous metamorphosis had he undergone?"

After Douch was captured in 1999, Bizot went back to Cambodia yet again, this time to visit Douch in jail. He learned from him the background to his own arrest and release so many years before. He visited the site of his prison, now overgrown by jungle.

In his Epilogue written after this 2000 visit, Bizot claims to have purged his ghosts and emptied his memory. This book tells us otherwise.

In 2009, Bizot was the first person to testify at Douch's trial for crimes against humanity. In 2012 he published a book detailing this experience, Facing the Torturer.

* Douch is the spelling Bizot used, so I am using it here. He is also know as Duch or Deuch. His real name is given variously as Kaing Guek Eav, or Kaing Khek Iev.

Apr 26, 2013, 4:43 pm

Thanks, Rise. I haven't gone back to the Group page and added new threads to my starred list in a while.

Apr 30, 2013, 10:19 pm

I finished The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng. This book was on the long list for the Man Booker Prize and I can certainly see why.

This very rich, character-driven novel introduces us to Philip Hutton, a 16-year-old who feels more than normally like a fish out of water because he is half-white and half-Chinese, with a white father and three white siblings. His mother had died when he was an infant. The scene is set in 1939 Malaysia where the islands are nearly equally inhabited by Japanese, Chinese, Indians, and British, all of whom generally coexist peacefully side by side. The invasion of China by the Japanese has naturally upset the Chinese population and their tales of the atrocities being visited on China are making the Japanese in the islands an unwelcome group. However, Philip's father has leased a small island out to a Japanese man who makes friends with Philip while Philip is living at home alone when the remainder of the family journeys to England for the summer holidays. Endo-san tutors Philip in martial arts and serves as a surrogate father figure. The onset of the war brings immense changes to everyone and strains even the closest relationships.

This beautifully written book which has themes of duty, honor, fate, and friendship and was filled with fascinating characters, each with an interesting story to tell.

While I think that The Garden of the Evening Mists was a richer story and well deserving of making the Man Booker Prize short list, this book had as much to offer and was a spellbinding story of an occupied island in the iron grip of Japan.

May 3, 2013, 9:57 am

One of today's Kindle daily deals for Amazon US customers is In the Shadow of the Banyan, which is on sale for $1.99:


May 4, 2013, 6:15 pm

May 11, 2013, 11:33 am

Another book I finished and reviewed in the first quarter.


The Woman Who Had Two Navels by Nick Joaquín (1961)

Over damp Hong Kong the day dawned drizzling, astonishing with sunshine the first passengers huddled inside the ferries, luring them out on deck to spread cold fingers in the blond air and to smile excitedly (that night was full moon of the Chinese New Year) at the great rock city coming up across the black water, rising so fat and spongy in the splashing light the waterfront's belt of buildings looked like a cake, with alleys cutting deep into the icing and hordes of rickshaws vanishing like ants between the slices.

The postwar Hong Kong setting of Nick Joaquín's first novel was significant in at least one respect. It highlighted the exiled condition of its Filipino characters, exile of the physical and spiritual kind. The Monson family—the elder Doctor Monson and his sons Doctor Pepe Monson and Father Tony Monson—had been living in Hong Kong for almost their entire lives. The elder Monson was veteran of the turn of the century wars against Spanish and American colonial armies. It had been Monson's dream to come back to his country only when "it was a free country again", which he finally did after the second world war. What he had seen when he came back to Manila, however, had so disappointed him and dashed the idyllic images of the place he harbored in his mind.

Also fleeing to Hong Kong was Connie Escobar, the woman who thought she has two navels. While the elder Monson was haunted by the specter of the past and his shame of discovering its impermanence, a different kind of shame—anatomical in nature—was haunting Connie Escobar. She ran away from Manila, presumably to flee her husband and to seek out Doctor Pepe Monson. She wanted to undergo an operation, "something surgical", that would remove one of the two orifices that supposedly peered from her belly like eyes. Her complaint may be psychological yet it clearly had something metaphorical about it. It seemed like a product of her sensitivity or a childhood trauma, a manifestation of an anxiety attack or just her wild imagination. The same physical deformity marked a "defaced" statue of the Biliken, a "toy" grudgingly given to her by her parents when she was a child. Although meant as a good luck charm, owing to its perpetually smiling face, there was something sinister associated with the Biliken in the novel—"an old fat god, with sagging udders, bald and huge-eared and squatting like a buddha; and the sly look in its eyes was repeated by the two navels that winked from its gross belly".


Connie's "imagined" condition could also be caused by emotional rebellion. She felt betrayed by her husband (Macho Escobar) and mother (Concha Vidal) when she learned that they were former lovers. She was so affected by this that it may have triggered a split in her personality. Those around her, those she told of it, denied the possible existence of an extra navel. The symbol of the two navels, the aberration it signifies, was so rich with implications that unraveling it almost made for a mystery story, although to call the novel a horror story was not farfetched either.

Another character seemingly in search of direction was Paco Texeira, a married band vocalist living in Hong Kong. Paco, a Filipino-Portuguese, went to work for a while in Manila's entertainment clubs and became entangled with Concha Vidal (La Vidal), Connie's mother. He became her constant escort, accompanying her in various parties and functions. Paco also got involved with Connie but he had to flee the two women as he detected a kind of evil force around them.

"They're both agents of the devil—she and her mother. They work as a team: the mother catches you and plays with you until you're a bloody rag; then she feeds you over to her daughter.... They work for each other. Whenever I was with one of them I could feel the other watching greedily. They share each other's pleasure, watching you twitch. And when they've screwed you up to the breaking point the daughter springs her abominable revelation {of having two navels}—and you go mad and run amuck. And there's one more soul that's damned."

Connie's mother was also in Hong Kong, presumably on business. Paco felt that the two women were pursuing him. To add to the complication, Macho Escobar arrived looking for his wife. These characters were all exiles in their own ways, imprisoned by their appetites and desires, baffled by their pride. The battle of the sexes would play out in its full sensual barbarity.

Edited: May 13, 2013, 11:03 am

Sounds very interesting! Another from the Philippines here:

Banana Heart Summer by Merlinda Bobis

Merlinda Bobis is a poet, and this book - a young girl's description of her street and neighbours in a small town in the Philippines - is a very poetic one.

It's full of symbolism - the street itself is described more than once as sitting between a church and a volcano, "between two gods. The smoking peak and the soaring cross faced each other in a perpetual stand-off, as if blocked for a duel".

If the volcano represents uncontrollable human passions, for most of the book you might think that it's not much of a competition. A young man elopes with his mother's greatest rival. The beauty of the street breaks several hearts. Nining (our narrator) nurses a crush on the son of the street's wealthiest family. "None of us could move before the perfect teeth at the other side. His preening and our ogling crossed and recrossed the road, and better sense was ambushed by hormones."

But the church is represented in smaller, darker ways, such as the shame the narrator's mother feels towards her first-born, the symbol of her romance with a labourer which got her thrown out of her wealthy family's house.

Nining gets a job as a maid and cook in a neighbour's house, and the majority of the book's symbolism is around food. Nearly every chapter heading is the name of a dish which features in the chapter, and nearly every person's story is told through references to food. Lovers give each other sweets, poor families argue over the price of a basic dish, a recluse lives self-sufficiently on the vegetables from his garden.

I know that this food-oriented magical-realist approach has been done many times before, and occasionally the symbolism was a little too obvious (when the handsome boy puts his hand on Nining's arm, she thinks, "Perhaps this is how fruit awakens to its ripening"). But I enjoyed the book a lot - and after all, it explains clearly how in a culture like the Philippines', food is tremendously symbolic of social relations and family circumstances; so why not make use of that with some mouth-watering writing?

My only real criticism is that although the book plays a lot with the idea of the contrast between heart and spleen (which medically is supposed to clean the blood, but symbolically represents anger), the writing is so lovely and charming that it's hard to realise the genuine pain in the relationship between Nining and her mother, until a rather shocking scene part-way through the book. But maybe next time I read the book it will come through more clearly.

A fiesta is a gustatory tour. It is a lesson in eating your fill through strategic moderation. You do not feast in only one house, but tour the tables of the whole street, sometimes eating multiple breakfasts, lunches and dinners, and taking home wrapped portions of the feast, forced on you by generous hosts. Best to have only a modest helping in every house, or perhaps just the best dishes, in order to accommodate everyone's generosity. And space these feastings, making sure your stomach settles down after a meal in one house before you proceed to the next.

May 18, 2013, 9:02 am

Banana Heart Summer by Merlinda Bobis

Been seeing that book in the bookstore. I'm now planning on getting a copy.

Edited: May 19, 2013, 11:25 am

I just finished The Sorrow of War by Bảo Ninh, a Vietnamese writer. Here is my review.

It is 1975 and the American War has been won as this tragic and stunning novel begins, yet Kien, a veteran of ten years of fighting, is still in the Vietnamese army, in the Missing In Action Remains-Gathering Team, and the team is on the edge of the Jungle of Screaming Souls, an area he knows well, because it was the site of vicious fighting in 1969 from which only ten members of his battalion survived. Here soldiers see ghosts, of Vietnamese and Americans, of animals and humans, souls that have not yet found the peace of death. And the Jungle of Screaming Souls is in a way a metaphor for the rest of this book, whose Vietnamese title means "My Destiny of Love," as Kien relentlessly searches his memories, of war and love, to try to understand the past, the present, and maybe the future.

The book moves somewhat haphazardly between Kien's life in the present as a writer trying to write a novel about the war and his life, his life during the war in the midst of horrifying fighting, and his life before the war, especially his love for his neighbor and schoolmate, the beautiful Phuong. And yet, there is a method to the haphazardness, because as the book (both Ninh's and Kien's) progresses Kien delves deeper into his memories and reveals more of the trauma he and Phuong experienced at the beginning of the war. It is as if he is spiraling deeper and deeper into his own soul and memories. What Ninh is doing grows on the reader as the book goes on.

Clearly, this book exists on several levels. Without a doubt, as all the blurbs on my copy say, it is an indictment of the horror (and sorrow) of war, and war scenes are rendered in great and disturbing detail. According to Wikipedia, Ninh was a member of something called the Glorious 27th Youth Brigade: of the 500 young men and women originally in it, only ten survived, and of these I read elsewhere (sorry, forget where) six committed suicide. At points, Ninh's writing about Kien's postwar experiences sound exactly like what we now know as post-traumatic stress syndrome. What does it mean to kill? What does it mean to survive when others die, even sacrifice themselves? In the way it describes the nitty gritty of war and how soldiers cope, it is a counterpart to the also brilliant Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes.

At the same time, it is a portrait of life in Hanoi, both pre- and postwar, and an illustration of the differences, found around the world, between city dwellers and country dwellers who find themselves thrown together. It is a story about the role of art in various forms: music and painting, as well as writing. It is in a way a coming-of-age story, as Kien reflects on his and Phuong's parents, although a coming-of-age by fire. And it is a tale of young love and of innocence shattered.

But maybe most of all, it is a novel about memory - what we remember, how we remember it, how with effort (in Kien's case through writing and, perhaps, alcohol; with others, perhaps, through therapy) we can access the very things that disturb us the most and that we keep hidden even from ourselves. And the novel explores the meaning of the past. At one point, early in the book, Kien muses:

"My life seems little different from that of a sampan pushed upstream towards the past. The future lied to us, there long ago in the past. There is no new life, no new era, nor is it hope for a beautiful future that now drives me on, but rather the opposite. The hope is contained in the beautiful prewar past." p. 47

Ninh's book was controversial, and was published in English long before being widely available in Vietnam. Ninh worked with a translator and an Australian author/translator/war correspondent (who is listed as "editor") to produce the English version (per Wikipedia). Here's an example of what might have annoyed the censors, although much is more subtle than this:

After 1975, all that had quieted. The wind of war had stopped. The branches of conflict had stopped rustling. As we had won, Kien thought, then that meant justice had won; that had been some consolation. Or had it? Think carefully; look at your own existence. Look carefully now at the peace we have, painful, bitter, and sad. And look at who won the war.

To win, martyrs had sacrificed their lives in order that others might survive. Not a new phenomenon, true. But for those still living to know that the kindest, most worthy people have all fallen away, or even been tortured, humiliated before being killed, or buried and wiped away by the machinery of war, then this beautiful landscape of calm and peace is an appalling paradox. Justice may have won, but cruelty, death, and inhuman violence have also won."
p. 193

I haven't really touched on Phuong's story, but it's an important component of the novel, as is her own wartime trauma and response. It is seen through Kien's eyes, but he gradually comes to understand her better, although he is still heartbroken about her leaving him.

This is a disturbing and eye-opening, yet beautiful book.

May 30, 2013, 9:41 am

I posted this review last week and completely forgot to add it here. This book is a follow-up on The Gate, which Sassy reviewed above (#53).

Facing the Torturer by Francois Bizot

Francois Bizot was a 30-year old French ethnologist studying Buddhism in Cambodia when he was arrested at a monastery by the KCP (Kampuchea Communist Party), his four-year-old daughter left by the roadside. He was sentenced to death and detained at M-13 Camp, a Khmer Rouge extermination camp. Nearly thirty years later he would write The Gate, describing his three-month imprisonment, the unusual relationship he developed with his interrogator, Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, and his unprecedented release. I read this book several years ago and was recently reminded of it by SassyLassy’s excellent review, which included this quote: “I have written this book in a bitterness that knows no limit.”

Inspired to read Bizot’s follow-up work, Facing the Torturer, I was surprised to find virtually no bitterness expressed. His reflections on this horrific period in Cambodian history and his own unjust imprisonment were so forgiving as to seem almost to emanate from an entirely different experience.

Bizot begins by recounting how as a young man, he killed his much-loved pet fennec (sand fox), by flinging it at full force against a wall. Although the reason for this cruel and impulsive response to his father’s death is unclear, he places it at the center of his assertion that all humans are capable of killing, given the right circumstances, and that “…what is inside me equals the worst of what there is in others.”

Part One of this short work is organized around four periods of time, beginning with Bizot’s 1971 detention at M-13 Camp and the transformation of Duch from his interrogator to his liberator. In 1988, he recognizes Duch in a photograph and becomes aware that he is the infamous torturer known as the “Butcher of Tuol Sleng”, responsible for the deaths of thousands. This awakens memories of his detention, the recording of which he would not begin in earnest until a decade later. Following the death of Pol Pot and the collapse of the Khmer Rouge movement (1998-99), Duch is apprehended and imprisoned. He readily confesses to his crimes and requests to meet with “his friend” Bizot, resulting in written correspondence and two in-person meetings (2003 and 2008). The author closes with discussion of his 2009 testimony at Duch’s trial before the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia. His narrative is supplemented in Part Two by excerpts from actual documents: Duch’s 2008 notes in response to reading The Gate; Bizot’s sworn deposition, consisting of salient parts of his trial testimony; a chronology; and miscellaneous notes.

Bizot’s portrayal of Duch is fascinating, but limited in its explanation of why and how a presumably good and educated man turned to inflicting torture and death under Khmer Rouge allegiance. Bizot characterizes Duch as a man of deep convictions, a former schoolteacher whose desire for justice for his people made him willing to sacrifice himself for the cause. He rationalizes Duch’s actions as being the natural result of his commitment to a cause in which he firmly believes, combined with the expected passivity of a soldier who is following orders and fears his superiors. Although acknowledging that Duch’s actions were unquestionably evil, Bizot argues that the man himself was not, his capacity for empathy apparent in his self-sacrificing efforts to secure the author’s release, as well as in his physical revulsion to inflicting torture. Duch cooperated fully with the Courts, acknowledging some degree of responsibility for the deaths of forty thousand people, and expressing great remorse before withdrawing into silence. He was sentenced in 2010 to 35 years in prison and Bizot’s postscript seems prescient of the fact that to date, Duch remains the only of the Khmer Rouge leaders whose trial has resulted in a judgement.
Duch now feels cheated by everyone, perhaps by me too. Not because I set myself up against him and spoke for the dead – that I know he understands – but because I put him on a par with the worst of the leaders whose orders he carried out, Nuon Chea, the cold and remorseless man, author of Duch’s misfortune and object of his anger; the only one after Pol Pot to whom he thought he would never be compared.

Having found The Gate to be a powerful book, I was both intrigued and somewhat perplexed by Facing the Torturer. Although offering a window into a horrific episode in history, this is at its heart a personal book, concerned with how a man reaches peace with his own terrifying experience. While offering many insights, Bizot’s forgiveness towards Duch felt too simple and strangely flat, given the extreme emotional ambiguity that would be expected when owing one’s life to the perpetrator of unimaginably monstrous acts. This may in part be due to the failings of memory and the doubts that come with age, both mentioned by the author, who was 71 years old at the time of writing this second book.

I have lost the certainty that things, as soon as they occur, take on a shape that stays unchanged for eternity. What was not true then is often made true by us after the fact. The present changes the past more than the future, each new ordeal crowds in on the previous ones to crush them.

Although many reviewers have criticized Facing the Torturer for offering little that is new to the understanding of those who commit mass killings, I found it to be a worthwhile read and one that will stay with me. I would, however, suggest that it not be read as a stand-alone book, but rather as a follow-up to Bizot’s more highly recommended first book, The Gate.

Jun 8, 2013, 7:58 am

I just finished This Earth of Mankind, the first volume of Pramoedya Ananta Toer's Buru Quartet.

This novel paints a vivid and often, indeed, melodramatic portrait of the evils of Dutch colonialism and institutionalized racism in Indonesia at the very end of the 19th century. It gave me insight into a time and a place that were largely unfamiliar. It is also a coming-of-age story, a political tale, and, less successfully, a love story. Originally created and recited orally while the author was imprisoned by the postcolonial government and denied access to writing materials, this novel is the first part of a quartet.

The story is told by Minke, who is about 16 when it begins and an aspiring writer. The descendent of Javanese nobles (although the reader doesn't know this as first), Minke is a Native, in the terminology of the time, below the Indos (Indo-Europeans, who are half Indonesian and half European), who in turn are below the Pures (or white Europeans, largely Dutch). Nonetheless, he has been allowed to attend an elite Dutch school where he is the only Native, and has been influenced by his teachers' emphasis on the ideals of European culture. The school is in Surabaya, which Wikipedia tells me is now Indonesia's second largest city, although it seems to be a pretty sleepy town in this novel; Minke boards with a couple there.

As the novel begins, Minke is taken by a friend to visit a house that lies out of town (and just down the road from a Chinese brothel). There lives a Nyai, or concubine, a Native woman who lives with a European man without being married, her beautiful daughter Annalies, and her son Robert. As Minke's friend hangs out with the son, Minke comes to know both Annalies and the mother, and they warmly encourage him to return, as Annalies has no other friends. The mother, who goes by Nyai, but asks Minke to call her Mama, is a remarkable woman. As the reader finds out later, she was sold by her parents to the Dutch man, and then taught herself reading, languages (including flawless Dutch), and business practices, and now runs the Dutch man's entire business enterprise.

As the tale progresses, the reader learns more about Nyai's and Minke's backgrounds, Minke meets some interesting but not fully developed characters who help in various ways, falls in love with Annalies, visits his parents, and becomes involved in a catastrophic series of events. These events, and the variety of other characters, serve to illustrate both the complexity and the horror of the colonial system.

I had mixed feelings about this book, and there were times when I almost gave up on it, largely because I just couldn't understand the relationship between Minke and Annalies. Minke is a smart, thoughtful, young man and Annalies, although ravishingly beautiful, seems painfully lacking in almost everything else; she is clearly psychologically disturbed and clings onto her vision of escape through being constantly with Minke (some of the weaker portions of the book are where the devoted European doctor tries to explain early psychology to Minke). The strongest parts of the novel are the development of Minke and the portrait of colonial Indonesia: the people, the landscape, the racism, the oppression, and the various kinds of resistance to the Dutch. By the end of the book, I enjoyed it enough to order the next volume in the quartet, which will follow Minke as he develops as a journalist.

Jun 8, 2013, 8:51 am

Excellent review of This Earth of Mankind, Rebecca. It interests me, as I am completely ignorant on the topic of Dutch colonialism. Strangely, LT says that I own this book, but I have no recollection of ever having seen it in my collection. I will have to do some searching.

Jun 9, 2013, 10:39 pm

Interesting review, Rebecca. Too bad the book wasn't better. All I know about Dutch Indonesia was learned from meeting some Dutch-Indonesian women when I was younger. THey were all pretty quiet (in a good way) so I didn't really learn that much.

Jun 10, 2013, 1:45 am

Intrigued where Ananta Toer's book is headed given that the first part has established two complex characters.

Jun 10, 2013, 7:14 am

Thanks, Linda, Rhonda, and Rise. I wouldn't say the book was bad, Rhonda; there just were weaker parts and stronger parts. I think the next parts will get more into the resistance to the Dutch, but I'm not sure.

Edited: Jun 21, 2013, 2:30 pm

I have just begun my first book for Reading Globally. I chose A Different Sky by Meira Chand.

I hope it is as good as it looks to be.

from the back of the book:
"Singapore, 1927. Three young people are questioning whether this in-between island can ever truly be their home. Mie Lan yearns to free herself from the stifling traditions of a famous Chinese dynasty; Howard seethes at the indignities heaped on his fellow Eurasians by the colonial British; Raj, fresh off the boat from India, wants only to work hard and become a successful businessman. As the years pass, and the Secomd World War sweeps through the east, the three are thrown together in unexpected ways, and tested to breaking point..."
will be back with a review when I have completed it.

Edited: Jun 30, 2013, 5:35 pm

I just finished Child of All Nations, the second volume of the Buru Quartet by Pramoedya Ananta Toer.

This is the second volume in the so-called Buru Quartet and it finds young Minke living at the home of his mother-in-law, the remarkable Nyai Ontosoroh, and attempting to pursue a career as a writer/journalist. Like the first volume, it presents a vivid and at times melodramatic portrait of the evils of colonialism and racism, and goes further in this one to also explore the nature of capitalism. Minke is aware that he has much to learn, and in fact is often bemused by what he didn't learn in school, as he still leans towards thinking the "Natives" have a lot to learn from the Europeans (or "Pures"). In many respects, he seems quite naive.

Minke has many "teachers," and the novel often becomes quite didactic as the various journalists, peasants, and revolutionaries (although he doesn't recognize them as such) essentially preach to him. He often comments that these seem like "speeches" or "pamphlets," and indeed they seem that way to the reader too. It is difficult to know whether the author meant them to seem this way, or if he thought that including these more didactic sections was central to the novel.

Many of the characters from the first volume appear in this one too, and much of the plot is a continuation of the stories and conflicts that began there. Aside from that, Minke and Nyai go on a vacation in which Minke is exposed to the exploitation of the peasants by the sugar factories, and Minke encounters a Chinese revolutionary who meets a sorry end and learns about the revolt against Spanish rule in the Philippines that led to the US taking over the colonial role.

When I read the more preachy parts of these two novels, I roll my eyes, get a little bored, and think I won't read the rest of the quartet. But when I get to the parts of the novels where people interact with each other and the plot develops (yet, it still makes the same points about colonialism and racism), I get more caught up in it. Although I clearly have mixed feelings, I probably will eventually read the other two volumes of this quartet.

Jul 17, 2013, 11:26 pm


I have just read this book for the Commonwealth challenge and wandering_star thought you might be interested in it. Brunei is not an easy slot to fill.

Brunei : The Modern Southeast-Asian Islamic Sultanate by David Leake
In 1963 North Borneo, having reverted to its ancient name of Sabah, and Sarawak, both Crown Colonies since the end of the second world war, joined Malaysia, leaving Brunei as a British protectorate until 1984 when it achieved "full" independence.

At that time there was a lot of foreign media attention in the impending change. Leake already lived in Brunei and had spent three years with the Borneo Bulletin, Brunei's only English newspaper. He hoped that being in situ and able to speak the language would help him write some articles that would show a more comprehensive understanding of the events. He mailed off a large package of photos to an agency in New York with an article that mentioned how the sultanate's oil wealth was apportioned. The package arrived at the destination but was never published. He suspected the article was the reason he was promptly expelled from the country.

Although Leake did not hold a grudge, neither did he suffer in vain, for in this book I noticed a number of sections that, while not exactly disrespectful, could possibly be seen as lacking the deference a Brunei sultan expects, especially regarding wealth. As Brunei's national wealth is under the control of the sultan, and is seen as his personal fortune, this makes him one of the richest men in the world.

The book is a good all-round history and description of Brunei, written with enough style to keep the casual reader's interest and without going into any topic to a lengthy academic level. For me, the second half of the book was the most interesting as it covered modern times and the people.

And, just in case you need more, my second choice was: British Borneo : Sketches of Brunai, Sarawak, Labuan, and North Borneo by W. H. Treacher. It's available at Project Gutenberg.

Apr 24, 2021, 9:51 am

I read State of Emergency : a novel, by Jeremy Tiang, which is mostly set in Singapore and Malaysia before, during, and after independence. It focusses on the Singaporean and Malayan Chinese communities' political relationships with the state, especially the suppressed history of repression against anyone left of centre, told through the actions of one woman and the reactions rippling outwards through her extended family. It's surprisingly honest, and I note that the author lives in the US not Singapore. Before I read this I'd only encountered Tiang as a translator, and a good one, but he's a skilled storyteller too.

The putative protagonist is Siew Li a Chinese Singaporean woman who becomes involved in leftist politics, is detained without trial, and subsequently flees Singapore to make a new life and a second family in Malaysia and Thailand. The supporting characters are her two husbands, her children, her niece, and one old school friend. As you might expect under the circumstances, sometimes Siew Li is more revealed by her absence than her presence. It's hard to read about history repeating itself in the worst ways but Tiang captures the complexities by examining events with an unflinching eye as he weaves his fiction through reality.

Tiang is clear about the overt and covert political violence of authoritarian British colonialism on British subjects in South-East Asia, including events such as the Batang Kali massacre, and the overt and covert political violence of authoritarian Singaporean government on Singaporean citizens. But his characters also compare their experiences of this repression with the effects of foreign and domestic terrorism, and Japanese military occupation, which made it easier for British colonialism to be spun as comparatively "benevolent", especially by the local English-educated Singaporean politicians and administrators who took and held power after Independence. Tiang is as honest about internal divisions, especially those of class and culture and race.

And anyone who doesn't believe a clean tidy state such as Singapore could have such a messy dirty history can google for repeat detainee Linda Chen, and the world's longest political detainee Chia Thye Poh (never arrested or charged or convicted, but detained and disappeared for decades despite being a legitimately elected Member of Parliament).

An extremely impressive first novel. 4.5*


Political prisoner of the British Empire, detained without trial (eventually for two years): "She was detained indefinitely - no indication at all if she'd ever be released. It wasn't fair, a girl of fifteen with everything still to come."

Decolonisation the profitable way: "The Tourist Board waited with impatience for the British to withdraw so their military base, already surrounded by every imaginable security feature, could be turned into a fine new airport."

State of Emergency: "No one could afford a proper war, it was far too soon after the last one. The small skirmishes and localised terror kept everyone on their toes."

Edited: May 8, 2021, 7:16 am

I read Jazz, Perfume & the Incident by Seno Gumira Ajidarma, which is a novel about jazz, perfume, and an incident of violent government repression in occupied territory, except the parts about the incident are actually factual reports of the November 1991 Santa Cruz massacre, aka the Dili Massacre, when the Indonesian military murdered 250 or so human rights protestors at a funeral in East Timor / Timor Leste. The author Seno Gumira Ajidarma was a journalist subject to government censorship of news media who lost his job in January 1992 as a result of publishing articles about the Santa Cruz massacre, but he wasn't detained. He published further material under the guise of literary fiction in 1996. The incident had previously become internationally notorious due to coverage by foreign journalists Max Stahl, Amy Goodman, and Allan Nairn, who managed to outwit the Indonesian and Australian authorities to get the news out, but their work was censored within Indonesia and could only be smuggled in covertly. The most conservative estimate of East Timorese deaths directly attributable to the Indonesian occupation is upwards of 100,000 people but many scholarly researchers consider this an underestimate and some have alleged that over 40% of the population died.

The plot of the novel is that the protagonist, remembers women by their choice of perfume, is reading reports of the Santa Cruz massacre and listening to jazz, which just happens to be associated with both musical freedom and civil rights.

The report chapters are verbatim eyewitness reports of the Santa Cruz massacre and subsequent "disappearances" collected by Indonesian magazine Jakarta Jakarta (where the author worked before being sacked for doing journalism in public) within the framing story of the protagonist reading them. Simple but effective. Apparently censors don't read literary fiction, or they think nobody else reads it, so printing these stories in this form evaded censure.

The jazz chapters are a long meditation on the use of art to communicate meaning, through music or through words: "jazz frees me to imagine, to wander as far as my thoughts can take me. If the music empowers just one listener to do something, isn't that already more than enough?" (...) "I want to know how history can be recorded in a voice. How blood and tears can be heard forever in sounds that occupy so limited a time."

The perfume chapters are more complex. Are the perfumes really attached to privileged women or are these the perfumed women from advertisements by brands which won't buy space in a magazine that's perceived as too political, a magazine that might be censored or banned from the shelves? Which stories should our protagonist pay attention to: the self-possessed ones already on every billboard, the stories that pay the bills; or the dispossessed ones desperate to be heard, the stories that could get him sacked or detained or tortured or dead? "'I have a story,' she says. // 'What is it?' // But my pager goes off. // 'Someone called. Said don't print the piece on the people who got shot.' // 'Sorry, where were we?'"

Then about two thirds of the way through, while the protagonist is still in 1993, the author is in 1996 and decides he might as well push ALL the way, so there's suddenly a chapter on journalism, and then a chapter about lesbians, and then one about gay men, but the author is smart and subtle about this. So his character talks about learning journalistic skills and gives a list of mostly innocuous potential questions ending with 'What's your opinion of the "July 27 Incident?"?' Which is acceptable because in 1993 there hadn't been a July 27 Incident. The July 27 Incident occurred in 1996 just before the novel was published. So the question remains unanswered because it's supposed to make the reader think, and this device works extremely well. And then further down the same page the protagonist (and presumably also the author) mock's himself: '"What's your opinion about the current political situation in Indonesia?" // "Journalists today are cheeky with their questions! But they don't have the nerve to print the answers!"' Then there's a rant rejecting ideology so green-red eco-left ideas can be introduced into the text, and the chapter concludes with quotes from another journalist's interview with a surprisingly philosophical snail.

The chapter on lesbians deliberately normalises a variety of lesbian and bisexual relationships between women from a variety of social backgrounds: 'I already mentioned that I'm aware of this sort of thing but to see it firsthand, in one's face, is different.' The following chapter mentions rape (no description or graphic detail) as a form of torture and political/social repression so there is an immediate contrast between the sexual choices of women free to choose and coercive sexual control by society. The next chapter on gay men emphasises unthreatening sexuality, with a story of gentle lovers told in an interview and contrasted against the interviewer's prejudices, then the interviewer dreams of male sex-workers (lol, no comment).

In the next chapter the journalist protagonist's office is raided by "intelligence agents" who confiscate information: '"We're looking for the evidence." // "We're good people here, sir" // "It's exactly because you're good people that you can be subversive." // Crap. I can't say "Well, in that case we're evil," can I?'

Before I read this I thought it was going to be worthy and of historical interest and with an interesting structure, which it is, but it's also full of mischief and joie de vivre. I loved it! 4.5*