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Book 78: Cambodia (English) – In the Shadow of the Banyan (Vaddey RATNER)

Once again I saw the face of the Khmer Rouge soldier who’d aimed her gun at the old man’s head. It occurred to me that the look on her face, as she shot the old man, as she watched him fall to the ground, had no name. It was neither anger nor hate nor fear. It was absent of rage or anything recognizable, and I remembered thinking that she had looked neither like a child nor an adult, but a kind of creature all to herself, not altogether real, in the same way a nightmare monster is not unreal.

 

This great novel is set during the takeover of Cambodia by the communist Khmer Rouge in 1975, and the immediate horrific, unbelievable aftermath. I was an idealistic teenager at the time and I first heard about what was happening there in a Readers Digest Condensed Book of Cambodia Year Zero. It seemed that no one outside knew (or cared?) what was happening there at the time, indeed it seems as if most of the world didn’t become aware until years afterwards, perhaps from Christopher Koch’s book The Killing Fields and the subsequent movie. I felt like screaming to the world, “Why don’t you care? Why don’t you DO something?!” Of course there was nothing I could do, maybe nothing anyone could do, until the horror was finished by a Vietnamese invasion – for which they received no thanks, since everyone (not least the Cambodians themselves) suspected them of a colonisation exercise, and perhaps that is what it might have become. But even if they were only swapping one Communist regime for another (and a foreign one at that), surely it was better than the KR which murdered perhaps a third of the total population, totally emptied the cities, and tried to drag the country responsible for the glories of Angkor back to some barbaric agricultural pre-civilisation.
In this novel, the background and experiences of the heroine are very similar to those of the author. She is deprived of her privileged childhood, with one exception: the love of story-telling that she receives from her father. One constant theme in the book is this importance of telling stories. This is one reason why, despite the horrific historical setting, the story is not not 100% negative; there is still beauty to be found as well. The natural world is important, and its symbolism pervades the story.
I realised, or was reminded (as I should know) that life is a lottery. Of those sent from the city, some are lucky with the country folk they are sent to live with and with their new life, others meet tragic ends.
Like Cambodia itself, the heroine Raami survives impossible odds to survive. It turns out that survival depends on what is inside yourself.
Sadly, there is not much true idealism left in the world. It was given a bad name by fanatics such as the KR in Cambodia, the Red Guards of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the Nazis and so many others in relatively recent times. Mostly, what is left is cynicism. What the world needs is renewed idealism ALONG WITH humanity and tolerance.

 

RATTNER, Vaddey (1970 – ), In the Shadow of the Banyan, New York, Simon & Schuster, 2013, ISBN 978-1-4516-5771-5

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Book 73: Netherlands (Dutch) – Het Diner = The Dinner (Herman KOCH)

What struck you in the first place about Claire’s dish was the immense emptiness. Of course, I also well know that in the better restaurants quality is considered more important than quantity, but there are emptinesses and there are emptinesses. Here the emptiness, the part of the plate where there was no food to be found at all, was clearly put on a pedestal above all else, as a matter of principle.
It was as if the empty plate taunted you to say something about it, to go and make a song and dance about it, in the open kitchen. ‘But you don’t dare!’ said the plate, and it laughed you in the face.

[my translation]

 

This was only the second book I’ve read in Dutch (after Anne Frank’s diary).
Going by what seemed a boring title and plot, I wasn’t expecting much from this one (although perhaps the sinister looking lobster on the cover of my Dutch edition should have given me a hint). I couldn’t have been more wrong! I’m sure this will turn out to be one of the outstanding reads of this project.
Just as the label specifies, this acutely observed novel describes a dinner party – a particularly poisonous dinner party, with the cynical narrator and his despised bigwig elder brother, and their respective wives. The crosscurrents between the participants are fascinating. As the meal progresses, we learn that all of the diners and their family members have dark secrets, including one especially ugly one, and what the real purpose of the dinner is. We come to question who really is most sensible of the brothers. Normally you will tend to follow the narrator, but here you might or might not continue to do so. You come to realise that you have to deal with that trickiest (but fascinating) of narrative styles, the unreliable narrator. Koch plays with your viewpoint and sympathies. The scene, the meal, the restaurant’s workings and the interpersonal relationships are minutely – and cynically – observed.
It is a complete course in family – and restaurant – politics and psychology. You can throw in anthropology too – especially, is nature or nurture responsible for the boys’ behaviour?
Since the intrigue and the setting are so concentrated, I think there is the makings of a fantastic play here. (I found the movie disappointing, and why does everything have to be transposed to the US?)

I can totally recommend this surprising, uncomfortable, caustic novel.

 

Koch, Herman (1953 – ), Het Diner, Amsterdam, Anthos, 2009, ISBN 978 90 414 1368 0

Book 65: Romania (German) – Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet = I would rather not have met myself today (translated as:) The Appointment (Herta MÜLLER)

I have been summoned. Thursday, ten on the dot.
I get summoned more and more often: Tuesday, ten on the dot, Saturday, ten on the dot, Wednesday or Monday. As if years were a week, it already surprises me, that after the late summer it is so soon winter.

[my translation]

On my big trip around almost all the countries in Eastern Europe a few years ago, one of the several in which I embarrassed booksellers by asking for something by a native that I could read for this project, one of the difficult ones was, surprisingly, Romania. No one could come up with anything in English for me. Finally in the rather charming Saxon town of Sibiu in Transylvania (I fell in love with its lidded dormer windows in the rooftops, like crocodiles peering out of a river), a German bookshop was able to come to my rescue. I thought this was an appropriate choice because a) Herta Müller wrote it in German, b) she is Romania’s only Nobel Prizewinner, c) there are actually a lot of German speakers in Romania, and d) my Romanian is rather limited. (And, e) my ancestors on the German side were also Müllers).
The original German title caused a lot of cogitation on my part, hopefully I’ve managed to twist it into equally convoluted English! The English translator avoided the issue, coming out with The Appointment, which is has the advantage of being snappy, and factually what it’s about, but loses all the unfortunate, sinister trepidation of the original. Perhaps The Summons would have been a better short title so that it didn’t sound like a mere doctor’s appointment.
The novel is set during Ceauşescu’s Communist dictatorship, during a single day, as the young woman narrator travels interminably on the tram (which is allowed to not follow a timetable, unlike her! and seems as lost as the Communist system itself) to an interrogation by the Securitate (secret police). She has a premonition that this time may be different – she’s packed a toothbrush. She originally got into trouble for the ‘crime’ of sewing ‘Marry me!’ labels onto men’s suits being exported to Italy, as a stratagem to escape from her country.
The terrifying sense of foreboding is overpowering. The ugliness of a society where everyone is watched and dissected by not only a secret police but also by one’s neighbours is really terrifying.

 

MÜLLER, Herta (1953 – ), Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet, Frankfurt/M., Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 2011, ISBN 978-3-596-18822-2
Translated into English as The Appointment.

 

 

Book 61: Taiwan (English) – Wild Kids (CHANG Ta-Chun)

A long, long time before that, just after [my kid sister] had begun nursery school, she loved to wear a certain kind of checkered cloth skirt. She liked yellow and white, red and white, pink and white, blue and white… in short, as long as there were two alternating colors and the checks were no larger than a fingernail, she would wear it. Mom also liked to wear checks, and the two of them together looked like a couple of perfume bottles from the same factory – one big, one little, but other than the size difference, all the other specifications were identical.

 

Wild Kids is a sort of double novel, continuing the story of a pair of siblings. (Unfortunately the first part of the trilogy, “Chang’s Big Head Spring trilogy” hasn’t been translated into English yet). It sometimes feels like an Asian version of The Catcher in the Rye, and I’m sure fans of The Catcher will love this one too. It gives a gritty, violent yet funny view of the underbelly of Taiwan. Both are told by the wonderfully named Big Head Spring.
The first half-novel (My Kid Sister) was my favourite, in which he provides a lovely portrait of his slightly weird sister – when she goes through feminist phase (and everything is ‘what’s the point?’). She wants to marry her grandpa (‘yeye’ in Mandarin) and asks why foreigners are always singing ‘yeah yeah’ in pop songs! They live in a dysfunctional family, and, as seen from the kids’ perspectives, their parents are at least as strange as children! Taiwanese (not only Taiwanese) are disillusioned and cynical.
The second half-novel (Wild Kids proper) is rather darker, as Big Head gets involved in Taiwanese gang ‘culture’. He gets mugged after winning at a rigged slot machine. It climaxes in orgiastic rampage with a crane! Just as well it is infused with humour, otherwise it would be a bit depressing.
Obviously, the Taiwanese are just like the rest of us – it’s hard to be an adolescent, and everyone, especially one’s parents, is weird! It is often very funny, sometimes a bit gross!, with a peppering of existentialism.
I’m looking forward to physically visiting Taiwan as my next port of call!

 

CHANG Ta-Chun (1957 – ), Wild Kids: two novels about growing up, New York, Columbia University Press, 2000, ISBN 978-0-231-12097-5

 

 

Book 55: Mozambique (English) – Under the Frangipani (translation of A Varanda do Frangipani = The Frangipani Veranda) (Mia COUTO)

This man I am occupying is a certain Izidine Naíta, a police inspector. His way of life is adjacent to that of dogs: he sniffs at misdeeds which drip with blood. I’m in one corner of his mind, I watch him with great care so as not to disturb his inner workings. For this man, Izidine, is now me. I go with him, I go in him, I go him. I talk to whoever he talks to. I desire whoever he talks to. I desire whoever he desires. I dream of whoever he dreams.

 

Hopping across to the other side of Africa for the other big Lusophone country there…

In European terms, this would be called a magical realist novel, but from another point of view it is actually suffused with African mythology and story-telling. At its heart is a murder mystery, but it is told as a mystery (in fact, as a novel) unlike any I’ve ever read. It follows two different logics – the Western crime procedural, and the African psychological/mystical approach. There is no shortage of suspects – or of confessors – for the crime, in fact everybody owns up to it!

The novel is a house that is airy with open windows between ‘mythology’ and ‘reality’, between humans and other beings, and between the past and the present. Even the narrator is a dead man. His very murder happened in a time of transmutation – just as Mozambique was painfully becoming independent from Portugal. The powers-that-be want to turn him into a national hero, whereas all he wants himself is to be one of the grateful dead. In order to solve his own murder, the dead soldier’s spirit enters into a police investigator, who (known to the occupying spirit but unknown to the policeman) himself has only a few more days to live…

This not over-large novel packs a large number of elaborations and issues in. I loved it. Couto’s language is magical and mysterious. A bit like my Ghanaian book (Wife of the Gods), this is a murder mystery with a twist (actually, many twists), full of African spirituality and charm. What a surprising and delightful discovery! Another wonderful author to read out when (if) I ever finish this project!

 

COUTO, Mia (1955 – ), Under the Frangipani, translated from Portuguese by Daniel Brookshaw, London, Serpent’s Tail, 2008, ISBN 978 1 84668 676 4 (originally published Lisbon 1996)

Book 54: Angola (English) – The Book of Chameleons (translation of O Vendedor de passados = The Seller of Pasts) (José Eduardo AGUALUSA)

 

“Lies,” he explained, “are everywhere. Even nature herself lies. What is camouflage, for instance, but a lie? the chameleon disguises itself as a leaf in order to deceive a poor butterfly. He lies to it, saying, Don’t worry, my dear, can’t you see I’m just a very green leaf waving in the breeze, and then he jets out his tongue at six hundred and twenty-five centimetres a second, and eats it.”

 

Félix Ventura, the seller of pasts, is an albino ‘black’ whose unusual metier is to surreptitiously construct ennobling but fictional pasts for his upstart clients. He is approached by a foreigner to go the whole hog and this time forge identity documents for him as well. The subjects have to undergo something like spy training to become at home with their new ‘legends’.

He calls himself a genealogist, which is a bit like a forger calling himself a calligrapher, but an artist nonetheless (even if only of the black arts).

Of course the trouble with weaving too many lies is that it becomes ever easier to trip over and get caught out – as does Félix himself when the portrait of his ‘grandfather’ is recognised as one of Frederick Douglass!

The book has no obvious mention of the Angolan civil war, but I suppose in the aftermath of one everyone has to reinvent herself or himself…

The story is actually narrated by his house gecko (the chameleons of the English title are the clients who ‘change their colour’). I was entranced by this idea! Anyone who has lived in or visited the tropics has probably shared their space with a gecko, who observes you glued to the wall with his suction caps, occasionally tut-tutting at you… ‘In this house I’m like a little night-time god.’

Agualusa said his novel was a “tribute to Borges” and that his gecko narrator actually IS Borges.

While it’s billed as a murder mystery, it’s also a genre bender. Don’t try to pin anything down! A marvellous book, which reminds me again of how much I would have missed if I hadn’t embarked on this exciting world voyage.

 

AGUALUSA, José Eduardo (1960 – ), The Book of Chameleons, translated from Portuguese by Daniel Hahn, New York, Simon & Schuster, 2008, ISBN 978-1-4165-7351-7

Book 50: Ghana (English) – Wife of the Gods (Kwei QUARTEY)

The forest was black and Darko was afraid to enter. The trees, covered from apex to root with dry, sloughing scales, beckoned him with their crackling, stunted branches. The forest floor erupted in a charcoal-colored cloud of dust as the gnarled, ragged tree roots burst from the earth and turned into massive, thrashing limbs. Swaying, the trees began to lumber toward Darko. He wanted to escape, but terror paralyzed him. He opened his mouth to scream but no sound came.

Fairly light-hearted for a murder mystery, but treating its themes with due consideration, this is a very likeable, easy-to-read novel. Yet I found I learnt a great deal about the local culture and ways of thinking from it. A ‘wife of the gods’ (trokosi) is a local girl offered to the local healer/witch doctor in expiation of some supposed transgression. That this is without the poor girl’s consent goes without saying… The not-very-nice witch doctor in this work is one of the prime suspects in the murder of a young woman who had locked horns with him in her anti-AIDS campaign, but did he do it? There are certainly one or two rather extreme AIDS remedies in this book! The hero, Detective Inspector Darko Dawson, who had moved to the capital Accra, digs up dark corners of his own past in this apparently sleepy village. He is a very likeable character, even if he does go off the rails occasionally (and understandably). I suspect this novel will be enjoyed by a much wider circle than just those who read murder mysteries. A totally enjoyable read.
Quartey was raised in Ghana but now lives in the US.

 

QUARTEY, Kwei, Wife of the Gods, New York, Random House, 2009, ISBN 978-0-8129-7936-7