Sunday, July 28, 2013

Book 131, Falkland Islands: Carlos Gamerro's "The Islands"

Okay. This is weird. I decided to do a mega-detour to South America, because the Falkland Islands now fit my criteria for inclusion in my project. Previously I'd figured they were too sparsely populated, but they're home to 2,932 people, twice as much as Tokelau or Niue. More importantly, I found a really cool book about the country.

Strange how whenever we talk about the Falklands War/Guerra de las Malvinas, we always hear about the British perspective: Margaret Thatcher as a patriotism-stirring warrior queen, et cetera. Carlos Gamerro tells us about the even more messed-up Argentinean side: a world of byzantine power struggles and sociopathic generals and torture victims, and above all an inability to let go of the shameful defeat. As the narrator says, it's not the criminal who returns to the scene of the crime, but the victim.

The War took place in 1982 and the story's taking place in 1992 - not just the 10-year anniversary, but also the 500th year since the colonisation of the Americas by Christopher Columbus. Aforementioned narrator is Felipe Félix, hacker and Falklands War veteran, employed by the mad Sr Tamerlán to track down the witnesses of a murder committed by his son.

And everything's mad in that delightfully Borgesian manner - magical realist but in an urban, technologically-equipped setting: Tamerlán's office has one-way mirrors as floors and ceilings so that the boss on the upper floor can be the master of a Panopticon; fellow veteran Ignacio spends years creating a fabulously detailed scale miniature model of Puerto Argentino/Stanley, supposedly to aid in plans for a counter-attack but in fact for the purposes of turning back the clock; Felipe creates a video game that enables General Verraco to play at winning the war, ending with him being blessed by the Pope in the middle of Buenos Aires and conquering the British Isles, and so on, and so on.

God, I've missed you, South America. And it's an education to learn how awful, how soul-robbing the war was for the Argentineans - the vets really didn't get decent care taken of them by the state - as the story shuttles between 1982 and 1992 like an acid trip or PTSD.

So yes, this was a positive experience. But harrowing. And also a bit of a betrayal to my friend Dmitri Aronov, who was at first delighted that I was reading Laxness at the same time he was, in preparation for a trip to Iceland. Never you mind, I'll be conquering that epic novel while travelling this coming week, in Bali.

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Representative quote: He began stomping about the classroom cowboy-fashion, with legs akimbo and fist clenched on groin. 'Argentina is an erect prick ready to breed, and the Malvinas, its balls. When we recover them, fertility shall return to our lands and we shall become the great nation our founding fathers once dreamed of! A potent country! Our wheat shall flower anew, and our cattle shall ply our oceans of grass; our trains shall run laden with the produce of the land to every corner of the country. Buenos Aires shall be the new Paris, the envy of all the cities of the globe. The Argentine name of the Argentineans shall ring pristine in the ears of the world with peals of welath and progress! From our recovered Islands an Argentinean sun of unimaginable grandeur shall mark the day on which the former colony becomes the world power we all long for!'

Next book: Halldor Laxness's Independent People, from Iceland. 

Saturday, July 20, 2013

I'm doing a 24-Hour Reading of Singapore Literature!

I've set aside my international palate for a while to concentrate on domestic affairs. I'm involved in the Lit Up Indie Arts Festival this weekend - click here for the website.

Basically, from Sat 20 Jul 7pm to Sun 21 Jul 7pm at the Aliwal Arts Centre Courtyard, I'll be doing a 24-hour reading of Singapore literature together with performance artist Lee Wen. We did a mike test yesterday (Friday):

We'll be taking loo breaks and sleeping in shifts and hydrating regularly. Don't worry, we'll pull through! But feel free to join us for a read if you like!

Lee Wen's also creating an installation made up of the 397 Singaporean books I'm bringing over from my personal collection, packed into five suitcases and a rucksack:

Below is a list of books we've decided to read from - there's stuff in English, Malay and Mandarin, as well as translations of all this stuff into English. We won't get through them all, of course, but we revel in the diversity represented!

Excerpts from the Sejarah Melayu
Shaus Frazer’s The Crocodile Dies Twice
Stella Kon’s Emily of Emerald Hill
Suratman Markasan’s Penghulu
Isa Kamari's Sumur Asia 
Singai Ma Elangkannan's Flowers at Dawn
Kuo Pao Kun's Two Plays: Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral & The Spirits Play
Haresh Sharma's Off Centre
Quah Sy Ren’s Invisibility
Russell Lee’s True Singapore Ghost Stories 2
Gopal Baratham’s Memories that Glow in the Dark
Elangovan's Talaq
Susie Lingham's Serpent Says from FOCAS 2
Lau Siew Mei’s Playing Madame Mao
Robin Loon’s Destinies of Flowers in the Mirror
Alfian Sa'at's Collected Plays I and Malay Sketches
Grace Chia’s Womango
Alfian Sa’at, Alin Mosbit and Noor Effendy Ibrahim’s Bisik
Lee Wen’s The Republic of Daydreams
Ng How Wee's 𣲙封赤道
Pooja Nansi's Stiletto Scars
Ethos Books's Our Thoughts Are Free
Cyril Wong's Satori Blues
O Thiam Chin’s Never Been Better
Muhammad Jailani Abu Talib’s Susur Pendekar
Reflecting On the Merlion
Chris Mooney-Singh's The Bearded Chameleon
Masturah Alatas’s The Girl Who Made It Snow in Singapore
Gene Sha Rudyn’s Al-Ikhlas
Tan Tarn How's Fear of Writing
Ho Rui An's Several Islands
Dave Chua's The Beating and Other Stories
Jee Leong Koh's The Pillow Book
Boey Kim Cheng’s Clear Brightness
Christine Chia's The Law of Second Marriages
Aziza Ali’s Sambal Days, Kampong Cuisine
Jerrold Yam’s Scattered Vertebrae
Tan Lixin’s Keeping Skeletons
24 Flavours: Sushi

Hope to see you there! If there's anything you'd really like to hear read, thrust it in our hands and we might indulge you!

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Book 130, Greenland: "The Vinland Sagas"

Apologies to the one (1!!!) person who voted on the blog poll – I’m not doing Eskimo Poems from Canada and Greenland after all. When I surveyed my friends on Facebook, the overwhelming majority of them wanted to hear about the Vinland Sagas.

And why wouldn’t they? I remember hearing about Leif Eiriksson as a kid back in the early 1990s, watching an American edu-tainment program called Encyclopedia: a bunch of Vikings singing about how one of them had discovered America in 1001 CE; a land he’d called Vinland because of the clusters of wild grapevines he found there.

Since then I’ve seen this theme explored in science writing, genealogical studies, speculative fiction. Philip Pullman even references it in His Dark Materials: in his parallel universe, Native Americans are called skraelings, suggesting that the Viking colony succeeded in creating a lasting Euro-American connection there, whereas in actual fact the settlement lasted only 200 years, colonists driven out by worsening weather conditions and angry natives and the general impossibility of managing an overseas empire like that from the reaches of teeny little Iceland.

But the topic of my investigations here is Greenland: discovered by Eirik the Red (Leif’s father) in 981 while fleeing blood debts in Norway, then Iceland. The Icelanders – famously literary folks, both in the past and the present - were fascinated by the notion of this wild western island, which yielded exports of walrus ivory, skins and furs: a snowy frostbitten land where the very act of survival was heroic. They therefore composed several sagas about the lives of people of Greenland. The two in this volume, Grænlendinga Saga and Eirik’s Saga, are only two of them.

There isn’t actually much detail about Greenland here – Eirik’s discovery is described in an oddly perfunctory manner, and many of the scenes taking place here are honestly rather dry compared to the tales of battling the skraelings in Vinland. Still, what does come across are characters and odd anecdotes. Eirik, for instance, is invited by his son to lead the expediton for Vinland, but he protests that he’s too old, and when he gets thrown off his horse on the way to the port he decides it’s a terrible omen, and stays put. Then there’s Bjarni Herjolfsson, who gets blown off course and spies Vinland (or at least Baffin Island and its environs) but is so uncurious that he decides not to check it out, even when urged to do so by his crewmen.

And get this: this is herstory as much as history, as the most vivid and intriguing characters are the women, not the men. Viking women are portrayed as more than just daughters and mothers: there’s Aud the Deep-Minded, an early settler of Iceland and a renowned ancestress; the prophetess Thorbjorg, dressed in a blue mantle and a black lambskin hood lined with white cat’s fur, who leads a circle of women in a ritual singing warlock-songs and is rewarded when she foretells the end of a famine.

And of course Gudrid, sometimes celebrated as the most widely-travelled woman of medieval Europe, who witnesses her first husband’s corpse rise and prophesy her good fortune (Viking zombies are freaky, but relatively benevolent), then goes with her second husband to Vinland and interacts with a mysterious dark-haired shadow woman during a skraeling trading encounter that ends in bloodshed, then finally comes back to Europe and does a pilgrimage to Rome and ends her days as an esteemed anchoress.

And perhaps most infamously, Freydis Eiriksdóttir (Leif’s only sister) who leads a colonization mission to Vinland, hogging the huts and resources for her men while edging out her brothers, then pretending to have been abused at their hands and ordering her husband to have her brothers and their men slaughtered or else she’ll divorce him. When all the men have been killed, her followers won’t kill the women and children, so she does this herself. She also faces down the skraelings by ripping her dress open and smacking the face of a sword against her bare breasts, freaking them out utterly. Did I mention she happened to be pregnant at the time? Why doesn’t every schoolkid learn about this lady?

Of course, the reason why these biographies are important is because of ancestry: the descendants of these pioneers were sponsors of the sagas, both in their composition and their retranscription. The introduction notes that the Icelanders were unique because they formed a republic, not a kingdom – it was they who pioneered the idea that a saga could describe the deeds of common men, not just of gods and kings.

One final note on Greenland - ironically, the Norse colony here would die out in 1500, just after Columbus’s more southerly discovery of the Americas. Now it’s a Danish colony, but it’s trending towards independence, since global warming is allowing the Inuit-Danish native population to finally grow their own damn food. Thank god someone’s going to benefit from the devastation.

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Representative quote: Then they put to sea, and Karlsefni accompanied them as far as the island. Before they hoisted sail, Thorhall said:

‘Let us head back
To our countrymen at home;
Let our ocean-striding ship
Explore the broad tracts of the sea
While these eager swordsmen
Who laud these lands
Settle in Furudustrands
And boil up whales.’

With that they parted company. Thorhall and his crew sailed northward past Furdustrands and Kjalarness, and tried to beat westward from there. But they ran into fierce headwinds and were driven right across to Ireland. There they were brutally beaten and enslaved; and there Thorhall died.

Next book: Halldor Laxness’s Independent People, from Iceland.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Book 129, Saint Pierre and Miquelon: "Rumrunners" by J.P. Andrieux

So I decided not to do Québec as a separate country, because they're not oppressed and they probably wouldn't become a nation of their own if they had a referendum. I do feel bad about this, though, since it was a special request that my friend Jean Francois made three years ago. But I did do the Québec-based Haitian author Dany Laferrière, so there's that.

The teensy-tiny twin islands of Saint Pierre et Miquelon do get an entry, however. They're a self-governing overseas collectivity of France - a colony in North America that no-one knows about! - and there is indeed a Kindle-friendly e-book about them/it, covering the sensational period of American Prohibition from 1919 to 1933: when the islands served as a vital port for the smuggling of alcohol from Europe and the Caribbean into the USA and Canada (yes, Canada did some Prohibition too, didja know that?).

But there're two problems at hand.

First, J.P. Andrieux is a terrible writer. Stupidly dull. Lays out the facts textbook-style, with zero delight in the potential of language to entertain, barely seizing any chances to revel in how interesting the details of his topic are. No lush descriptive background given of the town of Saint Pierre - just dry anecdote after anecdote of the smuggling. Megayawns.

Second - well, the subject really isn't that sensational. True, we've got some cool little stories about sailors who hide liquor in their water barrels, confounding their captains who searched the vessel high and low for the substance that was sousing all men on deck, and the big-name smugglers themselves - James McCoy (whose high-quality rum gave birth to the term "the real McCoy", the infamous gangster Al Capone, who gave away his straw hat to a shopkeeper who admired it, and Gertrude Light, one of the few women to sail the Rum Row, armed with a pistol to defend herself against ruffians who mistook her for a lady of negotiable affections.

However, once we get past 1933, we enter dull Canadian territory - there was still plenty of smuggling of booze and cigarettes from the islands to Newfoundland (which wasn't part of Canadian Confederacy until 1948), and Andrieux narrates the gradual crackdown on this by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police with chapters focussing on 1991, 1992 and 1993 individually, dwelling on juries and ever-so-polite Mountie raids, where they'll apologise for making too much noise if they raid the wrong house (quite unlike US cops, who'll usually shoot your dog and then try to sue you if you go the press about it).

Anyway, there doesn't seem to be much smuggling anymore, not that I've been persuaded to care much one way or another. After all, I'm currently in Colombo, Sri Lanka, listening to tales of police harassment of gay people and the horrors of the 26 year-long civil war, which they're recovering from quite nicely, by the way, after it ended four years ago.

Will be reading more while on the go in Jaffna, Anuradhapura, Sigiriya, Dambulla and Kandy! Toodle-pip, my dears.

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Representative quote: On the day that Prohibition ended, the truckers who had been engaged in transporting the liquor shipments from the docks to the warehouses and vice versa organized a mock funeral parade from one of the liquor warehouses. They paraded throughout the community with a long line of trucks, with the American and French flags at half-mast in mourning, signifying that the great era was all over and tomorrow they would have no more work.

Next book: The Vinland Sagas, from Greenland.