Friday, January 24, 2014

Bonus Review: "Rawa" by Isa Kamari

Still no Faroe Island book, I'm afraid - haven't even started. Busy writing for What's Up and reading and writing for my MFA.

I did, however, finish Isa Kamari's Rawa a couple of weeks ago, which brings to a close the trio of his recently translated novels I agreed to review. (Click on the hyperlinks to look at my writeups on 1819 and Song of the Wind.)

Of the three, it's blindingly obvious that Rawa is the best. There's two big reasons, I suppose:

1) Focus.
This is the story of just one man, the eponymous Rawa. We see him both in his idyllic youth in a houseboat in the 1960s, as well as in the rootless, soulless HDB experience of the lower middle classes in the 1990s, shuttling between the two in alternating chapters, so that both past and "present"feel like two sides of the same coin. (Doing the story chronologically would've made the work feel like two different novels cobbled together, as in the case of Song of the Wind.)

2) Novelty.
Isa's previous historical novels have all actually dwelt on fairly canonical history, viewed from a Malay perspective - Intercession was about the life of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), 1819 was about the founding of colonial Singapore, Nadra was about the Maria Hertogh Riots, Song of the Wind was about kampung nostalgia, and One Earth was about the fifties and sixties - the turbulent birth of the nation.

Rawa's different because it looks at a truly marginal history - the now-vanished tribe of Orang Seletar who once lived as marine nomads around Singapore and Johor. The average Singaporean hasn't even heard of this community - only one of several (one of Rawa's friends, Ayong, is from the Orang Kallang community). So at first, we've got this unusual situation in which it's the Malay community that represents urbanity, modernity and social erosion, 'cos they've got jobs at the colonial barracks and permanent houses instead of pau kajang houseboats.

Rawa ends up marrying a Malay girl, Temah - even converts to Islam for her, abandoning his folk religion, which is nonetheless acknowledged as also recognising the divinity of Creation. At first, they live on the river, even taking their firstborn daughter, Kuntum, to see dugongs when she's a baby. But then Singapore separates from Malaysia, and they've got to choose a nationality. And you can't get an identity card until you've got a fixed address.

So, for Kuntum's sake, the couple settle in Singapore, at Kampung Wak Hassan. Things go downhill from there. By the time we're in the '90s, with Rawa staying at Kuntum's flat with her husband Lamit and their son Hassan, it's clear that they're just not happy anymore, with their constant worries about bills and factory jobs.

Their lives aren't portrayed as dead awful, which I think is a wise act of restraint on the author's part. There's a little MRT excursion to Ang Mo Kio, where Rawa's dazzled by the modernity of the city (he's been living in a kampung in Malaysia), and Hassan's a boy genius in a good school with a promising future ahead. But there's a real sense of loss, of disconnect from the land, with the old kampung demolished save for the mosque. Which is how the story of the Orang Seletar is still relevant - their dispossession parallels that of contemporary Singaporeans.

Are there flaws? Well, I guess Hassan's a bit of a know-it-all plot device, dumping loads of historical info on the reader in a less than graceful way. And honestly, I'm still a little confused by the sub-plot of Ayong and the ring.

The novel's actually very short, with brief chapters, so there's no time to get annoyed. Moving ending, too - he even manages to weave in the Malaysia-Singapore dispute over the island of Pedra Branca into the story! (UPDATE: Just noticed that the full title of this book in Malay is Rawa: Tragedi Pulau Batu Puteh - Rawa: the Tragedy of Pedra Branca Island. That's actually a little misleading.)

Thus: I recommend this! As do other sites. Believe the Sunday Times had a blurb as well before I left.

Anyhow, in the time I've taken to review this trio of books, Isa's pumped out yet another novel, Selendang Sukma, which means "scarf of the soul". He says it's about natural religion, i.e. the kind of animism/Hinduism that people of Malay descent practise in Bali. Should be interesting. Check it out if you read Malay - and if you don't, stay tuned for the translation.

Back to reading for class now. Hopefully I'll have my Heinesen ready for next weekend!

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Latest stash!

So I'm kind of busy with work at the beginning of the semester, so I'll just supply you guys with an update about what I picked up in Singapore, mostly from BooksActually and the Substation's Alternative Art and Book Festival:

Top row: Zhang Yueran's Ten Loves, Colin Goh and Woo Yen Yen's Dim Sum Warriors 2, Jay Bernard's English Breakfast and Tan Mei Ching's Beyond the Blue Gate.

Bottom Row: Escape from the Lion's Paw: Reflections of Singapore's Political Exiles, Jason Wee's The Monsters Between Us, That We May Dream Again (writings of the detainees of Operation Spectrum) and Bernice Chauly's Onkalo.

Ooh, but I haven't shown you my latest find. The National Library's got an exhibit on about the early 20th century Singaporean poet Khoo Seok Wan, and there's free bilingual chapbooks available on Level 8!

Khoo's remarkable for many reasons. He was an intellectual of the Qing Dynasty, and actually qualified for the second (but not the third) round of Imperial Examinations - no mean feat for an overseas Chinese (granted, he was born in China, but spent much of his developmental years in Singapore). He thus wrote poetry in traditional Chinese structured forms - not the free verse you get today, but a dense, highly symbolic version of the language, going back to the Han and Tang Dynasties.

Renowned for his craft in his teens, he later started to describe his Southeast Asian landscape in his writings, describing Malay students, even incorporating Malay words in his pieces. Wrote eulogies for both the Empress Dowager Cixi and Queen Victoria! And he died in 1941, just before World War Two, when modern Singapore as we know it was just starting to get formed.

I've transcribed a couple of his poems here. The first one uses a different name for Singapore - Sin Chew, which literally means "the continent of stars". So nice!

Sin Chew

Of the many islands strung together
The most prominent is Sin Chew
Situated in a sea so vast
That rocky mountains can hardly be seen
Today's travellers to the region
Will find their sojourn easier now
Steady in its role as a favourable locale
A well-equipped, strident junction



Here's another, more political piece. Couldn't find the Chinese ideograms to transcribe the first word, sorry, so you'll just have to read it in English.

In the eighth month, upon hearing of the coup in Beijing

A tempest rattles the window
The beating of flags against the wall
An echo of guns

After the wind, leaves and branches lie
Fallen, as the storm clouds depart
For other locales

In slants of afternoon sunlight
Dust spirals in the wind
A swirling dragon

And in its flight, an anser
Separated from its mate

Where are all our heroes?
It falls to you and me.

Brill, huh? Catch you again next week.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Book 141, Denmark: "Anecdotes of Destiny" by Isak Dinesen

Just been to watch Disney’s Frozen. It’s good! Just awfully American.

This is relevant to our discussion, of course, since it’s based on a work by Denmark’s most famous author: a weird, kinda effed-up, mysteriously sexual and amoral little girl-quest called The Snow Queen. Read it if you haven’t already. - it’s honestly one of his less horrifying fairytales. The Little Mermaid beats The Steadfast Tin Soldier, but is in turn beat by the hair-raising Red Shoes. (Oh man, I just remembered that Death himself appears in The Nightingale. Brrr.)

I’d honestly considered doing Hans Christian Andersen’s autobiography or travel writings, but they were a little too long and uncanonical. What I wanted was something so famous that a film had been made about it, hell, maybe even a local publisher had decided to name an entire line of books after it…

I mean “Babette’s Feast”, of course. It’s just one of the five stories in this collection. Isak Dinesen (whose real name was Karen Blixen, not vice versa) is actually better known for her similarly cinematic novel Out of Africa, which takes place in Kenya.

And hell, these stories are good. Like, break-your-heart, amazeballs, despair-at-your-own-fictive-abilities good. Ohhh, I can’t give away the plot of “Babette’s Feast” – you just have to read it for yourselves – but suffice it to say that it involves a great chef who sacrifices everything for her art.

These are tales of sacrifice, really – of people deciding that the rational way of living judiciously or grasping contentment as it comes is simply not the thing to be done, and how they lead counter-intuitively satisfying lives for all that. Bizarre people. Sexy people, come to think of it. There’s a whiff of fucking or almost-fucking in pretty much all five stories.

What’s more worth emulating for me, possibly, is the way she’s so willing to give every one of her characters a back story – she divides her tales into sections, so that we can step back and examine the youth of each fallen heroine before action properly begins – and there’s a crystalline brevity to each section that makes it impossible to call even the longer stories novellas (maybe novelettes?). These aren’t quite in the short story tradition: they’re tales told round the fire, drawn from faraway lands…

Yeah, for some reason, Dinesen wasn’t into writing about Denmark much. “The Diver”’s set in Shiraz, Iran; “The Immortal Story” in Canton, China; and “Babette’s Feast” and “Tempests” happen in Norway, which happened to be a Danish colony then: the former’s in a colony on the Bervelaag Fjord, while the latter’s in the town of Christianssand.

Bu before you yell that I’ve gotta disqualify this volume, I’ll have you know there are Danish characters, dammit – the Copenhagen theatre troupe owner Herr Soerensen and the innocent 17 year-old sailor Povl Velling from Marstal – and the very last of the stories takes place in the country estate of a young Danish squire, though it doesn’t actually say which part of the country he lives in. But even that Danish tale takes place two hundred and fifty years before publication. These are Arabian nights exotica, to a degree, with events shifted to magical elsewheres all the better to help the reader swallow the oddness that is life itself…

(The melancholy and magic in these tales: are they like Andersen’s? Maybe.)

One little political note: I don’t quite understand why, with “The Immortal Story”, you should choose to set a story in China and not have it feature any Chinese people except servants. Instead we’ve got a Scroogey Englishman, a beautiful and impetuous Frenchwoman, a Jew with Asperger’s and a young, dumb Dane. But perhaps that’s what the spell of Canton was back then – a land where whites ran away to, to survive – and the same reason why Singapore is mentioned in the same story, as a place whereof the less is said, the better.

Leaving my home country at 5pm today, btw. Will be visiting a friend in Hanover, then back to school again! Looking forward and fearing at the same time, would you believe it.

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

Representative quote: (from “The Immortal”)  Elishama stood and looked after him. When the big young figure was no longer in sight, he himself lifted the shell to his ear. There was a deep, low surge in it, like the distant roar of great breakers. Elishama’s face took on exactly the same expression as the sailor’s face a few moments ago. He had a strange, gentle, profund shock, from the sound of a new voice in the house, and in the story. “I have heard it before,” he thought, “long ago. Long, long ago. But where?”

Next book: William Heinesen’s Black Cauldron, from the Faroe Islands.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Book 140, Scotland: "Waverley" by Walter Scott

And ther's a hand, my trusty fiere, 
And gie's a hand o' thine;
We'll tak' a right good willie-waught,
For auld lang syne... 

A Happy New Year and a joyous Hogmanay to you all! And verily, 'tis a shame that I'm not doing Robert Burns's poems - read out a good portion of Tam O'Shanter to my partner at the Fengshan Centre hawker stalls, though.

Instead, I chose to get ahead with my readings for my Novel History class at UEA by reading what's arguably the world's first ever historical novel - a work by an author so worshipped in his native land that they built the world's largest literary monument to him; a novel so successful that it launched an entire line of Scots-themed novels and a flood of English tourism to the previously deserted Scottish highlands and an entire genre of tartan-wrapped myth-making Hibernomania that's culminated in Mel Gibson and Pixar movies; a novel so influential that the Edinburgh railway station is named after it!

Yessir, I'm talking about Waverley, that colossal and no-longer-very-popular novel in two volumes that's now overshadowed by Scott's other works like Rob Roy and Ivanhoe, the latter of which is generally considered to be the most readable of his novels, despite not being about Scotland at all.

And indeed, there's something not very Scottish about Waverley itself. Sure enough, the story's set in Scotland - the entire first volume is basically a travelogue: an excursion from lowlands to highlands, with scenic views of peasants and robber barons and lairds and lords on the way, with commentaries on the hearty nature of Scottish breakfasts (mostly based on an abundance of oatcakes, from what I gathered). The second volume even follows the fate of the Jacobite Rebellion, wherein the Bonnie Prince Charlie, descendant of the Scots-descended Stuart throne overthrown by the Hanovers in the Glorious Revolution, battles to regain kingship of the United Kingdom, reinforced by his Scots allies.

But here's the thing: the eponymous character of the book, Edward Waverley of Waverley-Honour, is English. He's the son of the Lord of Waverley, and a captain in the army of King George, posted to Dundee, only wandering off to explore the countryside and encountering its colourful, kilt-arrayed inhabitants while on leave. Of course, due to some mixups, he's accused of desertion (this only happens at the end of Book One, as the plot takes a helluva long time to develop) and ends up in the care of the fiery laird Fergus MacIvor, allied to the Young Pretender (i.e. Prince Charlie), so that he's able to show his valour in the battles against his own army, on the side of the Scotsmen, all the while feeling guilty and conflicted but knowing that the men he's fighting for are stout-hearted and noble and true...

Honestly? This is exotica. We've seen the same tropes in Dances With Wolves, The Last Samurai, Avatar. TV Tropes calls it Going Native; I call it the insertion of a white (or more ethnonormative) protagonist into a non-white (non-ethnonormative) cultural struggle in order to make that conflict relatable to an audience that's been trained to only identify with white guys on screen. Despite its apparent intentions of expanding empathy, it supports a racist cultural status quo which white guys are always cast as the heroes, even when they're battling against the system their people established.

Waverley himself is a colourless everyman - said to be handsome and charming and invincible in battle only when he's swapped out his trousers for a kilt patterned with the Glennaquoich colours, but romantic and absent-minded otherwise, not unlike your prototypical English reader. He's young and moral and pure and not very rich until the end, Meanwhile, the Scots are foolish or impetuous and proud and wild, especially in their feminine apotheosis as the raven-haired, fiercely patriotic Flora MacIvor, whom we see early on in the novel reciting translations of Gaelic poetry to our hero while accompanying herself on the harp in the mountains, making his poor heart ache...

[SPOILER ALERT!!!] He doesn't get this girl, surprisingly, but does end up boffing another Scots noblewoman, the more subdued and innocent and tender-hearted Rose Bradwardine, who, like the conquered Scots territory, may be tamed and educated and improved until she's as sweet and noble as an English rose.[SPOILERS END.]

Didn't realise I'd do quite as postcolonial a reading on this as I did, but it's bleeding obvious. Still, it's  honestly a little reassuring to realise that the game of Orientalism goes back two hundred years (exactly!!!), when the colonial game was really only starting to get properly into its stride. And sure, Walter Scott was Scottish himself - a lowlander, not a highlander, though - and he was really just trying to inspire appreciation for his nation's romantic history. But the idea that this is what you have to do as a good ambassador for your country is hella creepy - that if you love your motherland, you've gotta pimp it.

Gah. But this wasn't actually a bad read, given that I could skim the Project Gutenberg e-book (there were even pictures!), and I was expecting far worse given the bad press that the Edinburgh Book Lovers Tour guide gave it. One less political note I should supply is that it sounded very Austen-esque at times. Shouldn't have been a surprise, given that she was Scott's contemporary, but the bad Latin and French-spouting numbskull Baron of Bradwardine and the way Flora turns down love with the supremest of rational logic had me definitely thinking of Pride and Sense and Prejudice and Sensibility and Persuasion and Lady Emma Susan Mansfield Northanger Park Abbey.

And thus ends my tour of the British Isles! Can't believe it's taken more than a whole semester to explore. Btw, I'd actually considered doing another previously completed item of coursework for Scotland - an example of tartan noir from my crime fiction class. Despite that omission, I'd still thoroughly recommend Denise Mina's The End of the Wasp Season. This country's got a lot of good writing in it.

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

Representative quote: While, plunged in the sad reflections which the scene excited, he was looking around for some one who might explain the fate of the inhabitants, he heard a voice from the interior of the building singing, in well-remembered accents, an old Scottish song:—

They came upon us in the night,
And brake my bower and slew my knight;
My servants a' for life did flee,
And left us in extremitie.

They slew my knight, to me sae dear;
They slew my knight, and drave his gear;
The moon may set, the sun may rise,
But a deadly sleep has closed his eyes.

Next book: Isak Dinesen's Anecdotes of Destiny, from Denmark.