Thursday, September 23, 2010

Book 25, Belize: “Beka Lamb” by Zee Edgell

This is a bit of a step down from the national epic of Asturias, but it’s a welcome step. Beka Lamb is one of those lovely interior novels that describes a nation’s culture through a single woman’s largely domestic life. In this case, the woman is year-old Beka, a black high school student keeping a wake for her dead friend Toycie in 1960s Belize - scratch that!, I mean British Honduras.

It’s a familiar setting: multi-ethnic, colonial and faintly grubby, like ‘60s Singapore, like ‘60s Malaysia, like sometime French Polynesia. Young girls here attend convent schools with strict yet empathetic nuns, counting themselves lucky to be educated rather than confined to household servitude, dreaming of golden futures as career women while the dangers of handsome boys lurk at their fertile feet.

So yes, maybe it’s a story I’ve heard before. But Edgell writes her cultural landscape so beautifully: stories of the veiled nuns arriving with the missions; the evenings harvesting and eating mangoes and cashews; the petty prejudices of the Caribs and the Mayas and the bakras and the panias; the Creole dialogue; the crash of the waves on the lighthouse dedicated to Baron Bliss, the crippled Englishman who gave his fortune to the colony; the horror stories of the Tataduhende, the thumb-stealing dwarf; the stinking canal bordering Holy Redeemer Cathedral; the great hurricane itself. It's a whole universe. Wish I had that eye for detail.

Methinks there's too much politics, though. Sure, the arguments between the father and the grandmother about independence and Governors rounding up the people for sedition have their place in history, but they don't quite fit in with the rest of the tale - or is that my chauvinism speaking? Why shouldn't politics fit into a woman's coming of age story?

But one thing there's a pleasant surfeit of is food. I revel in the casual lists of cuisine brought about by a meeting of British, Mexican and Caribbean influences: fried barracuda crayfish foot, red snappers stewed in coconut milk, peppered oranges, breadfruit, yams, honey buns, creole bread, relleno soup, red kidney beans with rice, escabeche with hot tortillas, potted meat sandwiches, calves' liver and onions, crushed avocado, salted pigtails, roasted pumpkin seeds, custard apples, craboos...

(Yes, I did compose most of this post before dinner. Why do you ask?)

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Representative Quote:
'I know. But nothin' lasts here, Beka,' her Gran answered. Her eyes looked funny. 'Things bruk down.'
'Ah wonder why?"' Beka asked, bringing the conch and minced habanero peppers to the stove.
Her gran leaned the fork carefully against the frying pan, pushed the window over the back stairs, and propped it open with a long pole. Then she said,
'I don't know why, Beka. But one time, when I was a young girl like you, a circus came to town. I can't remember where it was from, and don't ask me what happened to it afta. The circus had a fluffy polar bear - a ting Belize people never see befo'. It died up at Barracks Gren, Beka. The ice factory broke down the second day the circus was here.'
Beka's Granny Ivy was crying. Her apron tail was over her face, and she said again and again,
'It died, Beka, it died.'
The conch fritters had burned.

Next Book: Octavio Paz's El laberinto de la soledad, from Mexico. In the original Spanish, too! Wish me luck!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Book 24, Guatemala: "Men of Maize" by Miguel Ángel Asturias

Whoa. I wanna write like this.

The dense, fructiform imagery of the prose; the recurrence of folk myths and pre-colonial iconography amidst the master's tongue; the epic consolidation of five hundred years' history into maybe twenty years' narrative time; the seamless blending of realism and magic and poetry.

And all this twenty years before One Hundred Years of Solitude. (Sorry, Gabo keeps creeping into the picture. But that was another continent, and besides, the wench is entering dementia.)

It's shocking that so few people know about Asturias, despite his Nobel Prize, despite his life of political involvement and modernismo and exile in Argentina, despite the fact that his son actually took on the name of Gaspar Ilóm, a character from Men of Maize, and became a pro-indigenous rights freedom fighter against the genocidal government during the civil war.

(I only know about him 'cos I did my Spanish immersion in Quetzaltenango, where one of my short texts was by him: a wonderful little fable about a Jesuit trying to trick a tribe out of human sacrifice by forecasting an eclipse only to end up gutted on the obsidian slab due to the fact that they'd calculated its coming centuries ago, thank you very much.)

This book reads like a post-colonial Ulysses - kudos to the translator, Gerald Martin, who's transliterated onomatopeia and resorted to weird neologisms and had to figure out all these local plant names, amate and atole and ceiba and chayote and chichita and chilacayote and chilate and copal - glossary in the back for the perplexed.

Only difference is, instead of feeling like the guy's being onanistic with the lexicon, you feel that real third-world Marxist sorrow of being removed from your cultural roots and your means of production: he keeps hammering home the same damn eponymous point that in the old days the Indians grew maize as a sacred crop for food, and they grew just what they needed, but turning it into a capitalist plantation crop just destroys the earth and makes everyone poor.

Plus this division of the book into chapters named after people who mystically disappear: Gaspar Ilóm, María Tecún, the Deer of the Seventh Fire (i.e. the curandero) and the Coyote-Postman - yes, nagualism i.e. transformation of men into their spirit animals is a huge theme in this book. From the Indian warrior fighting back the colonial planters to the Ladino postman arguing with the Chinese storekeeper over the shawl of his runaway wife. Each generation loses some connection to the past, as well as some of that thick wonderful poetry that infused the beginning, turning instead to Wild West saloon talk, which is still pretty fascinating, nonetheless.

And yet the Coyote-Postman Señor Nicho falls into the world of magic in the end, meeting the firefly wizards and the curandero who became a deer and Gaspar Ilóm himself while in animal shape/trance, and all the figures from the previous stories reappear in the flesh or in legend, María Tecúm become an etiology for the spirited rock that lures people to plummet over the edge of the mountains, the soldier who sold his soul to the devil now plagued with a hernia, hanging out with Machojón's ever-loyal fiancée who grows old waiting for his return in his reeking sombrero as she sells butchered pigmeat in her hole in the wall.

Amazing stuff. Sad thing is, the copy of this book isn't even on the shelves of the library: you've got to delve into Repository Used Reference and pay a reservation fee to get at it. That ain't right.

(Though it is cool to see the date-due stamp chop paper still on the inside. FTW!)

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Representative quote: Not even the ash of his cigar will fall. Hands of darkness brandishing daggers will force him to suicide. But it will be only his shadow, a skin of shadow among the yuccas. The bullet will burst in his temples, he will fall to the ground, but other dark hands will lift his body, they will mount him on his horse, and will begin to shrink him horse and all until he is the size of a piece of sugar candy. The close-knit throng of yuccas will wave their daggers, daggers stained red with fire right up to their hilts.

Next book: Zee Edgell's Beka Lamb, from Belize.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Book 23, El Salvador: “Salvador” by Joan Didion

I’m feeling guilty for reading yet another book by a canonical American author instead of a local writer. (So many writers in Singapore are beginning to diss this term that I’ve decided to embrace it: it was local literature that accepted me in the first place and I’m not going to shift terms because of some PC agenda to make it sound better for curriculum programmers.)

Truth is, I could’ve borrowed something by salvadoreño novelist Horacio Castellanos Moya: our National Library stocks three books by him and his style reads really well. Reason I didn’t was:

a) Dance With Snakes, the novel I wanted (and the novel that launched him to fame), was checked out by another reader, and when I went the day it was returned the book was still in transit,

b) I was getting tired of novel after novel; we haven’t had a memoir since East Timor, and I don’t want to read I, Rigoberta Menchú for Guatemala when there’s another guy I could read who won his Nobel Prize for Literature, thank you very much, and was actually honest about his work being fiction,

c) I’ve been curious about reading Didion ever since Justin Bond made fun of her in a cabaret show of his I saw in Manhattan. And The Year of Magical Living seems a little trite.

Addendum to (b) is that I really wanted to know what had happened in this damn country for once. Broken by civil war in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and boy, does Didion make it sound like a basket case in her journalistic report (commissioned for Time magazine, I believe). No real heroes of independence, she says, and even the great precolonial civilisations of Mesoamerica and South America only barely touched the tiny country. The traditional way to make wicker, according to an interviewee, is to import it from Guatemala.

But of course, the very point of visiting the country for two weeks during a period of civil war and American-funded dictatorship is that no-one knows what the fuck is going on. All she can do is report the haze of events: the constant killings of young men in the street, the mendaciousness of the ministries, the cluelessness of the embassy, the alienated distance of news agencies, the ever-present atmosphere of danger, the irony that the only earthquake-reinforced building in San Salvador (the American Embassy) was the only one to suffer real damage during the quake, because the others were flimsy enough to ride it and the people were like, well, power’s out again, let’s turn on the generator.

No-one even knew what the population was. When 110% of eligible voters voted in the elections, they just decided to change the record of the number of eligible voters so it became 80% turnout.

Oddly, Didion doesn’t even conjure up rage against the right-wing dictator Roberto D’Aubisson because of the impossibility of gathering concrete evidence (other than widespread assent) that he is behind these killings of families and young men and indigenous villages; doesn’t even get us angry at the Reagan administration’s funding of D’Aubisson as a Cold War tactic because she portrays the US as being actually concerned with stopping the killings, and then being accused of “blackmail” by local politicians when they talk about the possibility of withdrawing it… you read it and you think, oh, it’s all fucked up, no wonder they sent all the other reporters to Beirut and Iran-Iraq instead.

But this sort of southern indifference to preciseness, the very antithesis of the agenda of a norteamericana journalist, and the lack of a real culture replaced by images of American and Mexican pulp - La Bamba in the desolate disco and teenage blonde lovers on the photo albums containing images of the dismembered dead. It’s a real downer. Maybe a little ethnically skewed, too. Really should read Castellanos Moya for his perspective. He speaks about the war’s aftermath.

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Interesting thing, though: Didion also notes that Gabriel García Márquez’s Autumn of the Patriarch is probably based specifically on Salvadoran dictator General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, that after living in El Salvador she understands that it he is not a magical realist but a social realist, that the history of Latin America is written as a non-rational tragedy because it is tragically non-rational to begin with. But things have changed, right?

Representative Quote: Even la verdad, the truth, was a degenerated hrase in El Salvador: on my first evening in the country I was asked by a Salvadoran woman at an embassy party what I hoped to find out in El Salvador. I said that ideally I hoped to find out la verdad, and she beamed approvingly. Other journalists, she said, did not want la verdad. She called over two friends, who also approved: no one told la verdad. if I wrote la verdad it would be good for El Salvador. I realized thati had stumbled into a code, that these women used la verdad as it was used on the bumper stickers favored that spring and summer by ARENA people. “Journalists, Tell the Truth!” the bumper stickers warned in Spanish, and they meant the truth according to Roberto D’Aubisson.

Next Book: Miguel Ángel Asturias’s Men of Maize, from Guatemala.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Book 22, Honduras: "The Mosquito Coast" by Paul Theroux

I'm losing steam on this project. May have to take a break for a while. Could be this book, though: it's a great novel, but it rankles with me that I've ended up reading not a book about Honduras per se but an analogy for the American entrepreneurial spirit of manifest destiny that just happens to take the form of a mad guy trying to build a utopia in the Honduran jungles.

Chose the book 'cos Paul Theroux's famous - he's also worked at the National University of Singapore, and set one of his novels, Saint Jack, in Singapore, which of course spawned the once-banned Bogdanovich movie of the same name. Plus his son, Louis Theroux, is mega-cute and mega-talented as a documentary journalist. Also because there really didn't seem to be anything written by a Honduran in the National Library.

Three reasons why the book gets me down, really.

1. Allie Fox, the megalomaniac father, is so plainly destructive towards his family with his genius and paranoia that you spend the entire book waiting in dread for everything to go to hell - and he's got a wife and a family of five kids too, transfixed by his charisma while also trying to deal with the fact that he lies about his failures to cover his ass, and these aren't small failures, these are great big destroyed-your-entire-community-with-ammonia-and-hydrogen failures, and the story's narrated from the viewpoint of 12 year-old Charlie as well, so there's all the vulnerabilty of adolescence as well...

2. Allie's language is so compellingly written and so juicy with its insanity that I know I will never be able to write something so good, and it annoys the hell out of me, since I've been trying to improve my prose-writing for the last week and a half on Even the way Emily, the pastor's daughter, speaks with her fixation on pop culture has me floored.

3. And of course, I learn nothing about Honduras except that there are native people in the province of Mosquitía (some are called Twahkas and Zambus) who eat a porridge called wabool, and there are guavas and alligators and missionaries and Communists, and a certain form of Indo-Spanglish that people speak. I know that might seem like a fair bit, but the soul of the place is missing. The book is not about Honduras, dammit.

Damn, I'm starting to give my book reviews in point form. What's up with that?

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Representative quote: But as we sudsed up the river (monkeys on the right, kinkajous on the left), Father said, 'I find it hard to believe that some missionary hasn't been here before and bought their souls with Twinkies and cheese-spread in spray cans and creates of Rice-a-Roni.' He watched a monkey on a branch. 'Hershey bars.' We passed by. He looked back at the monkey. 'Diet Pepsi.' Now he turned to the kinkajous. 'Kool-Aid.' He flicked his cigar butt into the river. 'Makes your mouth water, doesn't it?'

Next book: Another impasse: Joan Didion's non-fiction book Salvador or Horacio Castellano Moyas's novel Dance With Snakes. Both from/about El Salvador.