Wednesday, December 25, 2013

A Christmas gift from the Quasi-Boyfriend

Merry Christmas! I’m just back from a family vacation in Penang, and surprise, surprise, I’m only halfway through Waverley

Anyhow, I got to hang out with Mohan while doing some last-minute shopping yesterday. (I’m calling him my quasi-boyfriend because I’m not entirely sure where our relationship’s headed.) But we’re still giving each other presents – he sent me an awesome ice cream maker for my birthday, for example, which has boosted his boyfriendly credentials no end.

And since we decided to exchange gifts a trifle prematurely this afternoon, I can report that he’s done well once again, proffering a work by the 2013 Nobel Literature Prizewinner Alice Munro:

It is of course a little crazy that it’s this Canadian lady, not the formidable and phenomenal Atwood, who’s won the prize. But as someone who’s currently working on a short story collection, I can’t complain if the genre of the short fiction gets a boost.

My gifts to Mohan were similarly literary: a discount copy of the early American gay novel The City and the Pillar by Gore Vidal and a copy of Orlando, the Marmalade Cat: A Seaside Holiday, by Norfolk writer/illustrator Kathleen Hale. He somewhat spoilt the trend by also giving me a slushie-maker.

(Honestly, I’m touched, but I have no great love for slushies. Not sure how I’ll make use of it.)

I’ve also made use of the Yuletide season by composing a list of the best of what I’ve read in world literature thus far – it’s only natural, after all, to use this site as a space for recommending books rather than assessing them one by one. Too late for gift recommendations this year – but perhaps it’ll be valid for many more years to come!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Bonus Review: "1819" by Isa Kamari

I'm back in Singapore! And it's high time to get moving on what I was asked to do a couple of months ago: review Isa Kamari's translated novels. I spoke about Song of the Wind two months ago, but in the past few days, I've neglected Scottish literature in favour of 1819, originally published in Malay in 2011 under the title Duka Tuan Betakhta (Your Sorrow Reigns). ("Tuan" can mean either "lord" or "you" in a super-polite way, so I'm iffy about that translation.)

This one's another historical novel, centred around the British colonization of Singapore in said year and its later effects. Every Singaporean kid studies this: how Sir Stamford Raffles arrives in the land with a heroic vision to develop it as a free port, and how he succeeds in his aim by double-crossing the Malay princes into giving him rights to the land. It's all presented in a rather dispassionate way - it's clear as day that he was doing some dirty dealing, but we're not inspired to patriotic fury over it.

I've seen a number of artistic interpretations of this story - children's books, Asiapac comics, Robert Yeo's play The Eye of History and Haresh Sharma's play Singapore, even a TV serial/movie I remember seeing as a kid. I've been party to this too - I wrote a play called The Last Temptation of Stamford Raffles, rebelling against the "civilising", "ordering" forces that the Brits sought to impose on us. A lot of my research actually relied on The Golden Sword by Nina Epton, a 1969 British novel about Raffles's life.

1819 gives us something new. It's a dramatisation of those times from a thoroughly Malay perspective: that is, it's drawing its historical materials primarily from Malay resources.  This means that alongside  British East India Company colleagues Colonel William Farquhar and Dr John Crawfurd, as well as colonial stooge sellouts like the Temenggong Abdul Rahman, Sultan Hussein and the scribe Munsyi Abdullah, we've got the Muslim saint Habib Noh, the silat warrior Wak Cantuk and the treacherous, queen-shagging royal advisor Abdul Kadir. These are figures who do not appear *at all* in our mainstream textbooks - whom even well-meaning non-Malay Singaporean history buffs like myself are ignorant of.

(That being said, I found out a bunch about Habib Noh and his miracles at a walking tour to his tomb, organised by the NUS Museum a few years ago. You should totally go there.)

I'd urge all Singaporeans to read this book, because the stories in here are incredibly important. They challenge the platitude that Singapore was "a sleepy fishing village" before colonisation, as well as the idea that the Malays were unified or led by noble Sultans (the nobles are opium-addled obese fools and the Malays of the Johor-Riau Empire are in a clandestine war with the Bugis). And we should learn about the miracles of Habib Noh and the murderous amok spree of Wak Cantuk, because they paint a picture of the strangeness and fractiousness that happens when societies go through rapid cultural changes, just like what we're experiencing today.

Now, I don't want to give you the impression that this is a wonderfully readable book - it's not, again due to cultural and aesthetic translation gaps. There's a ridiculous amount of historical *telling* that happens, especially in the first few chapters, as Isa is super-anxious to divulge all the details of history that he's gleaned. Even when it's plopped into dialogue, it's really heavy-handed. The Brits are cartoon villains who cackle at their nefarious plots, and the "common man" is represented by this buffoonish trio of kampung kids named Sudin, Ajis and Ramli, who gossip and piss in their sarongs in that silly distracting way that foolish peasants do in Shakespearean plays. Doesn't work, really - the average joe ends up looking dumb when he has the capacity for nobility.

And if we're gonna impose political agendas on this - and why shouldn't we? - I've also gotta point out that the constant name-calling of Abdul Kadir as a "half-breed bastard" because he's half-Indian is never challenged, not even by Munsyi Abdullah, who was 100% Tamil himself. (Abdullah seems to be a stand-in for the author himself - an intellectual who knows he has the brains to lead the Malay community, only he's been co-opted to the institutions, and only wants to be known as a writer anyway.)

Plus, there's way too little herstory in here - there's only passing reference to the wives of the players, and no acknowledgment that they too had influence on the development/devolution of Singapore: Sophia Raffles, Farquhar's half-Malay half-French concubine Nonio Clement, and the adulterous queen Tengku Perabu (okay, she does get a bit more screen time, because she's instrumental to the downfall of the Sultanate, but very little agency's portrayed). No appearance of that great independent businesswoman Hajjah Fatimah, either, even though she fits right into the time period. But I can't ask an author to be feminist, can I, especially after I've criticised his portrayals of women in his other books.

And the truth is, the imperfections of this book frustrate me to the degree that I want the right to adapt or expand the book to incorporate my own perspectives and historical tidbits - maybe this doesn't belong in a book, really; it should be its own TV serial on Suria or Channel Five, when Mediacorp actually grows a pair.

You see, the stories in this book - tales of betrayal, magic, revenge, cultural genocide - deserve a place in the wider collective imagination. There's only a limited number of eyeballs it can reach in print form, especially with this particular translation. What we need is a transcreation, that adapts with the aim of creating a work of art that stands by itself...

And I suppose I should volunteer to do such a thing, if only I'd the time. What I'll be up to instead is stealing a whole bunch of historical details from this for my own fiction.

Thanks, Isa! Will get round to reading that last book, Rawa, soon - just after my Scottish book. :D

Monday, December 9, 2013

Book 139, Northern Ireland: "Death of a Naturalist" by Seamus Heaney

One of the great things about having access to a university library is the fact that I can read a lot of poetry in its original collections, not in Compleat Works or Selected With Annotations stuff. I kinda wanna see how a writer's oeuvre was originally presented to the public, warts and all.

The Spirit Level is of course widely available - but after I'd picked it up, I realised:

1) I might've read it before, back when I first started getting curious about Heaney.

2) It wasn't actually written while Heaney was living in Northern Ireland (where he did in fact spend the first thirty-three years of his life).

3) I just wasn't connecting with the poems. 

Call me shallow, but the pieces in The Spirit Level all seemed messy and disperse and referring to incidents and people I wasn't familiar with, which is in itself not an unfamiliar sensation during this project. But I do want to honour great writers by saying nice things about their work, and to have a good time reading myself.

So I've decided to go back to the volume that started everything off: Heaney's very first collection, published by Faber and Faber back in 1966:

It's easy to like Death of a Naturalist. Most of these poems are these wonderfully earthy things, reflecting on what it means to be a poet who's grown up in the country as the son of a farmer, hence you've got schoolkid classics like Digging, wherein he imagines himself digging with his pen into his heritage, just as his forefathers dug with their spades for potatoes. Also the scary frogspawn of the titular poem, his mother's dairy alchemy in Churning Day, the tragedy of a child's death in Mid-Term Break, the assumption of adulthood and responsibility around the horse-plough of Follower. And of course the weird Thomas Wyatt-esque loss of innocence in Blackberry-Picking, another piece we kept on seeing on our literature worksheets, and which someone told me actually referred to the Eucharist.

All very sensual, all very real, all very lovely on the ears and accessible. In fact, quality actually goes sideways towards the end of the book when we just start getting fluffy love songs and nature poems, whose depth can in no way compare to the stuff in the first half. But if I'd wanted depth, I'd have gone with The Spirit Level, no? My own damn fault for being stupid and impatient.

Since we're on the topic of Northern Ireland, however, we've gotta mention The Troubles. And though the violence only peaked in the seventies (during which time Heaney wrote works like Wintering Out, which I personally find a tad forgettable), we do actually have a threatening yet thoroughly human figure of a Protestant activist whose "fist would drop a hammer on a Catholic" in The Docker. "Oh yes, that kind of thing could start again", the poet says, and sure enough it did.

Things have been peaceful enough since the nineties, thank god, and I'm planning to visit Belfast next year. Still, it did drive Heaney to Dublin, where he spent the rest of years until his death in April (which I shamefully didn't remark upon in this blog). What's the relationship between Northern and Republic of today? I've heard of people switching nationalities just to get their university fees slashed. Will find out through travel, not literature, I dare say.

Anyhow, Singapore's experiencing troubles of its own right now. Not sure how I could (should?) turn that into literature.

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Representative quote: 

"From A Potato Digging"

Live skulls, blind-eyed, balanced on
wild higgledy skeletons
scoured the land in "forty-five,"
wolfed the blighted root and died.

The new potato, sound as stone,
putrefied when it had lain
three days in the long clay pit.
Millions rotted along with it.

Mouths tightened in, eyes died hard,
faces chilled to a plucked bird.
In a million wicker huts
beaks of famine snipped at guts.

A people hungering from birth,
grubbling, like plants, in the bitch earth,
were grafted with a great sorrow.
Hope rotted like a marrow.

Stinking potatoes fouled the land,
pits turned pus into filthy mounds:
and where potato digger are
you still smell the running sore.

Next book: Sir Walter Scott's Waverley, from Scotland. Or shall I do Robert Burns?

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Book 138, Wales: "The Mabinogion"

I know, I know. I said I was going to do the UK as a single entity, not as the four separate nations of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. But somehow I gave in to temptation and had a peek at Welsh literature - and it occurred to me that quite apart from the popular opinion of my friends (which was that I should indeed read four separate books), there is simply a lot of good writing from each of these lands, and I might as well avail myself of them while I'm in the British Isles. And anyway, didn't I do Macau as if it was its own country?

I had a choice of texts, too. At first I was skimming through Dylan Thomas's memoir-cum-short story collection, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog. Got through half of it in an evening, too. But then I flipped through the first few pages of this baby, and I was hooked:

The Mabinogion is a series of eleven Celtic tales, dated between 1382 and 1410, translated from Welsh to English in the nineteenth century by Lady Charlotte Guest. The first four of these are 'The Four Branches of the Mabinogi': ancient, primal tales of kings and witches and savagery that will f*cking blow your mind.

Lemme tell you what happens in the Fourth Branch, to give you a taste of these nuts. There's a guy called Math son of Mathonwy, and he can't live unless his feet are in the lap of a virgin. (No explanations. Just go with it.) But then his nephew, Gilfaethwy falls in love with said virgin, a gal named Goewin, who's the fairest maiden of her generation. So he and his brother Gwydion come up with a  plan. They approach Math with a plan: they wanna team up with him to capture these strange creatures who've never been seen before on the island of Britain who taste better than beef (they're pigs, I think). 

They dress up with eleven other men as poets, and go to the court of Pryderi, son of Pwyll. They offer in exchange for the pigs twelve stallions with golden saddles and bridles, and twelve hounds with golden collars and leashes, which Gwydion made out magic, because that's a thing. And they get the pigs, but when they get back to Math, they tell him, oh no, Pryderi is after us because the magic's worn off and he now knows he's been cheated. Math and his armies flee to another cantref (province) where the pigs are being held, and meanwhile Gilfaethwy rapes Goewin on her master's bed.

Then there's a huge war between Math and Pryderi over these pigs, and when peace returns and Math returns to his castle to lay his feet in Goewin's lap again (he didn't die because the rules don't apply when he's at war), she says, sorry, I'm not a virgin anymore. And Math gets crazy mad at Gwydion and Gilfaethwy, and says they'd better not show their faces up here again. And they don't. For several years. But then they do turn up, 'cos Math banned anyone from giving them food or drink, and they come to the court, and Math takes his magic wand, and turns Gwydion into a stag and Gilfaethwy into a hind. And he curses them to live and mate with each other like wild animals, and return within a year.

And they do return after a year, and they've got a little fawn with them. Math keeps the fawn, but he turns Gilfaethwy into a wild boar and Gwydion into a wild sow. And they go off and mate with each other for a year, and they come back with a wild piglet, which Math keeps. Then he turns Gwydion into a he-wolf and Gilfaethwy into a she-wolf, and they go off and mate with each other for another year, and come back with a cub. And Math say, okay, you guys have been punished by having to have incestuous cross-gendered sex with each other for three years, here are your fawn and piglet and cub who've turned back into boys and I've had baptised. Oh yes, and I need another virgin please. So they suggest their sister Aranrhod, and Math makes her walk over his magic wand, and she immediately gives birth to a yellow-haired boy, which makes her flee in shame...

And that's just the beginning of the tale of the hero Lleu Llaw Gyffen, who is said yellow-haired boy, cursed by his mother to never have a name, never have weapons, never get married, et cetera, all of which he manages to overcome by outsmarting her.

Talk about magical realism - these stories just rattle off impossible things in crazily compressed language and expect you to deal. There's Bendigeidfran, who deals with a demolished bridge in a battle by lying across a river and letting his men walk over him (because suddenly he's a giant!), a massacre in Ireland that leaves no-one alive but five pregnant women, whose sons eventually grow up and repopulate the island by having sex with each other's mothers, a giant and an even bigger giantess who can only be got rid of by luring them into an iron house and heating it until it's white hot (and even then they manage to flee by breaking down a near-molten wall), talking immortal salmon and stags and eagles, murderous shieldmakers and shoemakers, a hero who tries to hang a pregnant field mouse despite being dissuaded by a cleric, a priest and a bishop (she turns out to be the queen of an enemy king who turned his army into mice to eat up all the grain in the fields), a princess made of flowers, a cauldron that reanimates the dead, Welshmen stranded in England who maintain their language by cutting out the tongues of their English wives, so their children will speak only Welsh...

Trippy. Things actually get a little more standard and formulaic in the book's second half, which is dominated by Arthurian romances - all these Welsh knights fulfilling their destiny in the court of Arthur and Gwenhwyfar (yes, that's how they spell Guinevere), and every knight more handsome and noble and strong, and every maiden more beautiful than the last. But it's still gloriously mad, and by the time we get to the piss-soaked stable and unexplainable ravens and gwddbwyll games (it's a board game of some kind) and half-red half-white half-black horses of "Rhonabwy's Dream", we're pretty much spent.

Anyhow: while I'm in Great Britain, I'm gonna milk it for all it's worth.

Also of note: this is where Lloyd Alexander got his Prydain series from! I grew up on that stuff. There's even a forgotten Disney movie based on the books, The Black Cauldron. I know: Disney did a Welsh princess before a Scottish princess. Odd, huh?

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Representative quote: 
           ‘I want the birds of Rhiannon, they that wake the dead and lull the living to sleep, to entertain me that night.’
           'It is easy for me to get that, though you may think it's not easy.'
           'Though you may get that, there is something you will not get. The cauldron Diwrnach Wyddel, the steward of Odgar son of Aedd, king of Ireland, to boil food for your wedding guests.'
           'It is easy for me to get that, though you may think it's not easy.'
           'Though you may get that, there is something you will not get. I must wash and shave my beard. I want the tusk of Ysgithrwyn Pen Baedd to shave with. It will be no use to me unless it is pulled from his head while he's alive.'
           'It is easy for me to get that, though you may think it's not easy.'
           'Though you may get that, there is something you will not get. I will not enturst the keeping of the tusk to anyone except Caw of Prydyn. The sixty cantrefs of Prydyn are under him. He will not leave his kingdom willingly, nor can he be forced.'
           'It is easy for me to get that, though you may think it's not easy.'
           'Though you may get that, there is something you will not get. I must dress my beard to be shaved. It will never straighten out until you get the blood of the Very Black Witch, daughter of the Very White Witch, from Pennant Gofid in the uplands of hell.'

Next book: Seamus Heaney's "The Spirit Level", from Northern Ireland.