Monday, June 30, 2014

Book 152, Belgium: Hygiene and the Assassin by Amélie Nothomb

Belgium’s famous for its comic writers – Peyou of the Smurfs and Hergé of Tintin, for instance. It’s got a whole museum devoted to the graphic novel form. 

But I’m still on the road, and so I’ve to make do with Kindle books instead. I realise now I should’ve downloaded a free copy of Nobel Prize-winning playwright Maurice Maeterlinck’s The Blue Bird, an allegedly insipid little drama about children and innocence.

Instead, I bought the first novel of Francophonie superstar Amélie Nothomb, whose novella Sulphuric Acid is so amazing that I’ve regularly lent it out to my students as an exemplary creative writing text. And surprisingly, Hygiene and the Assassin (originally Hygiene del’Assassin) is also about children and innocence and a Nobel Prize-winning author… 

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The tale’s set in 1991, when the First Gulf War is breaking out. A horrifically ugly and obese 83 year-old shut-in of a novelist named Prétextat Tach has learned he has succumbed to incurable cartilage cancer, and has finally agreed to grant interviews to curious journalists about his life and work.

Tach uses the interviews as opportunities to demonstrate his power over the journalists, insulting and mentally torturing them. (One guy is reduced to retching just through a description of Tach’s daily diet, which mostly consists of fatty by-products.)

Then one day, a 30 year-old female journalist turns up – her name is Nina, by the way – and she will not take his nonsense. She’s the only one of the lot who’s read all his books, who actually claims to enjoy them despite his insistence that they’re written to the detriment of the human race with all their graphically debauched depictions of human depravation, and who rightly determines which one of them is actually autobiographical.

I won’t spoil this one for you guys – it’s that good. And one of the coolest things about it is that it’s written mostly in dialogue format – in duologue format, in fact, since it’s almost entirely made up of scenes of Prétextat and his interviewer alone in a darkened room. And god, the power play with Nina is awesome. Wasn’t surprised to discover that the story’s already been adapted into a play in Paris.

Which brings me to a point of uncertainty for this blog: does Hygiene and the Assassin actually take place in Belgium? I really can’t tell – there’s a mention of francs, but those were used in both France and Belgium before the introduction of the euro. And there are mentions of Sartre, but of Maeterlinck also. And we discover that Tach grew up on a château at Saint-Sulpice – and while there's places called Saint-Sulpice in France, none of them is a volcanic plateau as far as I know.

I’ve decided, however, to believe that this interview takes place in the French half of the city of Brussels/Bruxelles, where Nothomb lives when she’s not in Paris. If enough people protest, maybe I’ll read Henri Michaux’s Darkness Moves instead.

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Representative quote: 

“Let’s not play with words, all right?”

“You are saying this to a writer?”

“I’m not talking to the writer, I’m talking to the assassin.”

“One and the same.”

“Are you sure of that?”

“Writer, assassin: two aspects of a same profession, two conjugations of the same verb.”

“Which verb is that?”

“The rarest and most difficult of verbs: the verb ‘to love.’ Isn’t it funny how school grammar books sometimes use it as an example, when it’s the verb with the most incomprehensible meaning?”

Next book: Anise Koltz’s At the Edge of Night, from Luxembourg.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Book 151, Netherlands: "The Discovery of Heaven" by Harry Mulisch

I'm in Greece! Physically, not reading-wise. On a little jaunt to see as much of Europe as I can before my lease runs out.

Reading-wise, I'm finally done with my Netherlands book, and what a joy it was. I'd had a tough time deciding on what to pick - I'd read the most famous book in Dutch, Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl, and the next most classic works - the 17th century playwright Joost van den Vondel's Lucifer and the 19th century novelist Multatuli's Max Havelaar, weren't actually set in the Netherlands.

Fortunately,a simple Google search with the terms "greatest Dutch novel" threw up the results of an official 2007 survey of what the people of the Netherlands regard as their greatest work in the form -and then all I had to do was apply for an Interlibrary Loan for this volume, and ta-da!

It's 730 pages long, but guess what? It's worth it. Especially if you're one of those semi-cynic, semi-mystic folks like me, who indulge in the guilty pleasures of reading Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code because it does after all spin a thriller out of Templar secrets, and who similarly enjoyed Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum because of the way it draws on the Gnostic past for mystery, while at the same time acknowledging that all our efforts to build conspiracy theories of divinity are absurd...

The Discovery of Heaven is like that, only more epic, because it takes place over several generations - oh, and did I mention it's narrated by angels? Its prologue and intermezzos are made up of a dialogue between two ruthless angels trying to chart Humankind's course for the sake of the Chief (i.e. God), which is why they direct the strange coincidences of the tale.

What actually happens in the story is that Max, an astrophysicist, meets Onno, an amateur cryptographer. They discover they were conceived at the same time and become BFFs - companions in mind because of their commonly esoteric intellectualisms (there's loads of factoid-laden digressions here, with snippets of Latin and German thrown in, because Onno just happens to speak like, every language). But the angels' plan is to have them both - in a way - to be fathers of a new sort-of-Messiah...

And on the way there are lovers (female) of different ages, a journey to 1960s Cuba and to 1980s Israel, and loads of angst about the Netherlands' complicity in the Jewish Holocaust of the 1940s - hell, Max's observatory is built at Westerbork, one of the transit camps for the Jews on their way to extermination. Oh yes, and a Messiah named Quinten, with sapphire eyes and a weirdly innocent intelligence that can be a little annoying (it's clearly put in place so that other characters can explain the minutiae of the Bible and lock-picking and classical architecture for the readers, but I do think that given his genius lineage, he would've figured it out for himself).

You can see I'm trying not to give away too many spoilers, because I do think this is a book worth picking up for yourselves. Basically, I'm glad I've had this opportunity on my round-the-world trip to sample one of those high literary works that's also a pacy crowd-pleaser - the Holy Grail for literary agents, so I'm told. Gotta learn how to write that stuff myself.

One last thing of note: there's quite a few mentions of the Netherlands' Indonesian population, especially of the Moluccans. Turns out many of the Moluccans fought for the Dutch against the Indonesians during the War for Independence - so they had to seek refuge in the Netherlands afterwards. They were actually housed in Westerbork, despite the spot's genocidal legacy - and were forced out of their huts to assimilate in none too ceremonious a fashion.

And another thing - Vondel and Multaluti both get a mention in the book. Yessir, this volume is all-encompassing. That's what you can do with 730 pages.  And if you're too impatient for that, catch the 2001 film, starring Stephen Fry. Or at least the Brows Held High review thereof.

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Representative quote: Once he stood motionless on the balcony looking at the balustrade, at the gray stone banister on the wooden amphora-shaped pillars. Max squatted down beside him to see if there was perhaps an insect walking among them; but only when Quinten carefully put his forefinger on a certain spot did he see that there was a tiny, fossilized trilobite, from the Paleozoic period, about 300 million years old. At the same moment he realized that the creature that Quinten had discovered had lived at about the moment that the extragalactic cluster in constellation of Coma Berenices - "Berneice's Hair" - had emitted the light that was now reaching earth.

Quinten looked at him.

"That's a trilobite," said Max, "a kind of silver fish. What would you like? Shall we free it?"

Next book: Henri Michaux's Darkness Moves, from Belgium.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Fish Eats Lion now available as e-book!

Still making rather little progress with The Discovery of Heaven, so I'll seize the chance to advertise the fact that the anthology of Singaporean speculative fiction I'm in - Fish Eats Lion - is finally available as an e-book.

Jason Erik Lundberg writes on his blog:

Just published by Infinity Plus Books with a brand new cover, the anthology is now available at Smashwords, Amazon US, Amazon UK and Amazon CA. (N.B. The book is now available at the Nook, Kobo, and iTunes ebook stores as well.)

“Lundberg combines accessibility with a uniquely Singaporean flavor in his selections. SF readers looking to expand their horizons will enjoy visiting new worlds from an unaccustomed point of view.” —Publishers Weekly

“I doubt I’ll read a more engaging collection this year. [...] There’s a rich optimism to be found here that speaks of lesser-known spec-fic writers rising to a challenge, and that challenge being more than adequately met.” —Pete Young, Big Sky

“Entertaining in this post-colonial era, it hints at how storytellers can become mythmakers, with the power to change the world.” —Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times

Many folks contacted me after the print edition was published in late 2012 about inquiring after an ebook edition, and I want y’all to know that I was listening. I’m very glad that Keith Brooke decided to work with me on bringing this out; he’s taken the same care and attention to detail that’s evident in my other Infinity Plus titles, and produced something that we’re both happy with.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Starry Island: New Writing from Singapore

I've got my hands on the Mulisch book but I've barely started, I'm afraid. Might as well grab the opportunity to advertise a new publication I'm in!

Starry Island: New Writing from Singapore collects the essays, fiction, and poetry of two dozen contemporary Singaporean writers—artists whose diverse subjects and aesthetics reflect the multiplicity of ethnicities, languages, and religions that constitute Singaporean society today. The works range from meditative essays to lyric poetry to magical realist fiction. Each expresses the complex tensions and interconnections that have characterized Singapore in its transformation from a former British colony into one of the most urbanized and prosperous nations in the world.

Photographs in Starry Island are of Singapore’s ultra-modern architecture, along with archival portraits of Peranakan and Chinese families.

Contributing writers include Yu-Mei Balasingamchow, Kim Cheng Boey, Grace Chua, Dan Ying, Jeffrey Greene, Philip Jeyaretnam, Amanda Lee Koe, Jee Leong Koh, Desmond Kon, Khoo Seok Wan, Karen Kwek, Shirley Geok-lin Lim, Nicholas Liu, Jason Erik Lundberg, Christopher Mooney-Singh, Eleanor Neo, Ng Yi-Sheng, O Thiam Chin, Wena Poon, Alfian Sa’at, Toh Hsien Min, Cyril Wong, Wong Yoon Wah, and Jerrold Yam.

MANOA 26:1

To purchase copies from the MANOA site, please click here.
To purchase copies from the UH Press site, please click here.
To purchase subscriptions, please visit the University of Hawai‘i Press ordering page.