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
‘The sea looks the same as in the moving pictures, only bigger.’
Camila had heard about the moving pictures which were being shown at the Hundred Doors, close to the cathedral, but she had no idea what they were like. However, after what her cousin had said, she could easily imagine them as she stared at the sea. Everything in motion. Nothing stable. Pictures mingling with other pictures, shifting, breaking in pieces to form a new image every second, in a state that was not solid, not liquid, nor gaseous, but which was the state of life in the sea. A luminous state. Both in the sea and in the moving pictures.
This is a stunning portrait of a dictatorship. It is a place of betrayal – no one can trust anyone (especially not the President!) The whole country is at the whim of one mercurical person. He acts like a cat toying with a mouse. He runs a state of lies, where the weapon is false accusations – the ‘truth’ must be made to fit what is convenient for the regime. On the one side is his cruelty; on the other, sycophancy.
One of the most chilling sections is a frightening interview with the incoherent, drunken president:
‘Do you know, Miguel, that the man who discovered alcohol was looking for an elixir to produce long life?’
’No, Mr President, I didn’t know that,’ the favourite hastened to reply.
’It would be odd, certainly, for a man of such wide knowledge as you, Mr President, who has every right to consider himself as one of the foremost statesmen of modern times, but not for me.’
His Excellency dropped his lids over his eyes, to shut out the chaotic vision of his surroundings that his alcoholic state was presenting him with at the moment.
’M’m, yes, I do know a lot!’
While anyone familiar with any of the world’s too numerous dictatorships will find so much that is familiar here, mirrored in the highest literary style, it also reminded me of Trump’s White House – and I find it impossible to imagine anyone with a more towering egoism.
All in all, a chilling, masterly novel.
ASTURIAS, Miguel Angel (1889 – 1974), El Señor Presidente, Guatemala, Piedra Santa, 2000, ISBN 99922-5-024-0
In English: The President.
‘The Indians cling with blind and morbid love to this scrap of land which is lent to them in exchange for the work which they give to the hacienda. What’s more: in their ignorance they believe that it is their own property. You know. There they put up their thatched huts, farm their little smallholdings, raise their animals.’
‘Sentimentalities! We must overcome all difficulties no matter how hard they may be. The Indians… What? What do the Indians matter to us? To put it better… They must… They must be important TO US… Of course… They can form a very important factor in the business. The arms… The work…’
In 1930s Ecuador, building a road through the jungle should have brought prosperity and modernity to the local Indians, but landowner Don Alfonso only thinks of using it to increase his personal wealth. He robs them first of their labour then of their huasipungos (small plots of land allocated to tenant farmers by the hacienda/large estate owner in exchange for work), causing them to revolt and be massacred. (A more accurate spelling in English orthography would be ‘wasipungo’).
Icaza was maybe the greatest Ecuadorian author of the 1900s. ‘Huasipungo’ needs to be seen in the context of the indigenista movement (which was influential across the arts spectrum), which highlighted the oppression and struggles of the indigenous people. Its themes are exploitation by big landowners and gringos, racism (including the racism of the mixed-race mestizos against those with more Indian blood than themselves), class struggle, and the venal, collaborationist church which functions as part of the power structure and has been bribed into using the faith as a weapon against the indigenous.
The casually inhuman treatment of the natives as if they are not people is quite shocking. For example, in one incident, cattle invade the corn fields during the night. Don Alfonso thinks he’s a hero just because he had to get up in the middle of the night to do something about it! To reward himself, he rapes a powerless indigenous girl. They are basically treated like property, even the indentured labourers. These have been subjected to forced labour under the very real threat of losing their land.
Fuelled by chicha, a fermented corn drink (which is doled out to them like medicine), they are forced to drive the road through a marsh, against the engineer’s advice, leading to a horrific death.
The Ecuadorian Spanish spoken by the indigenous people is not too hard to follow, but is obviously influenced by their native Quechua which only has the vowels a, i, u, so that their Spanish loses its e and o vowels. The Indians tend to speak as a chorus almost like in a Greek tragedy. They are an integral part of the country, while the whites seem out of place and slightly ridiculous.
This important and engaging novel shows in black and white the long shadow that colonialism cast over Ecuador.
ICAZA, Jorge (1906-79), Huasipungo, Madrid, Cátedra, 2013 (originally published 1934), ISBN 978-84-376-1251-5
Icaza, Jorge: The Villagers
Captain Kadian takes a large swig from his glass tumbler, closes his eyes for a moment, smacks his lips, and says, ‘The job’s not that hard, you see, you just go down once a week or fifteen days, and the money, the money is not bad at all.’
This novel is set in Indian Kashmir, near the ‘Line of Control’ with Pakistan. Kashmir isn’t an independent country (though you suspect most Kashmiris might want it to be). When India and Pakistan gained independence, the Muslim-majority state was ruled by an indecisive Hindu maharaja who opted for India at the last moment. Open and covert warfare between Pakistan and India, and Kashmiri militants, for decades has been the consequence. Both countries claimed the state and occupy it (India the majority). India promised an independence referendum at the outset, that has never been held. Some sixty years later, no solution is in sight. The lovely valley is perhaps the world’s most likely flashpoint for a nuclear war.
In ‘The Collaborator’, brutal, drunken Indian Army Captain Kadian gives a marvellous self-justification for his actions, going through the full catalogue of rationalisations with which such people kid themselves (only). It’s their own fault that atrocities occur, can’t be helped, just part of his job, I’m just a tiny cog in the machine, it’s the law, those who whinge about human rights don’t understand, I have a family too, I didn’t kill them myself, they chose to die, it would have happened anyway, even if I agreed I couldn’t do anything.
He forces the boy narrator to ‘collaborate’ and count the fallen corpses in the typically beautiful Kashmir valley on the border (a job he considers too dangerous for his own soldiers); every day he expects to find one of his boyhood friends who had gone across to Pakistan to join the militants.
The high point is the visit of the Governor of Kashmir, who helicopters in as if on a military operation, humiliating the villagers (who had been warned by an azan ((Muslim call to prayer)) recited backwards), like the preparation for a massacre instead of a ‘hearts and minds’ campaign.
There are a lot of Kashmiri, Arabic and Hindi/Urdu words used, but unfortunately no glossary is provided and they are not always explained.
Although he is speaking of his scavenging expeditions, when the Collaborator says he is tired of it all he must be speaking for most Kashmiris.
WAHEED, Mirza (1955 – ), The Collaborator, London, Viking, 2011, ISBN 978-0-670-91895-9
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.
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
Yurts on the Karakorum Highway towards Pakistan – my photo
Coming from Kazakhstan, which was lucky (and perhaps rather surprised) to find itself liberated from Russian control when the USSR disintegrated, it’s time to hop across the border to look a the closely-related people next door who were not so fortunate. Xinjiang (Chinese for ‘New Territory’) is the largest and westernmost province of the People’s Republic of China (Kashgar is closer to Istanbul than to Beijing, and not just geographically). It has traditionally been inhabited by mostly Turkic-speaking Muslim peoples, especially the Uighurs, who call it East Turkistan or Uyghuristan, and smaller groups such as the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz (now with their own nations) who are related to other peoples in Central Asia rather than to the Han Chinese. Nobody said history is fair. On the contrary, in recent years so many Han have moved in (colonised?) that the Uighurs may now be in a minority in their own homeland, in a similar situation to the Tibetans. (It should be said, though, that the Chinese have also been in the ‘Western ‘Regions’ for a long time, since the heyday of the Silk Road). So far I haven’t been able to get a single Uighur novel, at least in one of the western European languages I can read. Perhaps that in itself says something? So I’ve covered this huge territory with a short story by a Uighur writer, Wild Pigeon (also called Blue Pigeon, light blue being the Uighurs’ colour), and the novel Loulan kaj Fremdregionano by INOUE Yasushi.
“The air inside and outside this cage are identical, I think, but the life possible on my side of these iron bars might just as well belong to a different universe.”
Considering how much writing it was to cost its author, this is an important little work.
In a dream, a wild pigeon (perhaps from the ‘Stans to the west?) visits his relatives the domesticated pigeons (of Xinjiang?) They have given up their souls, given up even thinking about souls.
The visitor suspects that words have different meanings here, but actually they don’t. There are in fact two kinds of naivety.
The older pigeon has ‘gone over’ to the humans, and he gets his fill while others starve, defending the system. In the end it’s the pigeons themselves that do in the wild pigeon, not the humans.
Perhaps the captors’ stupidity and ignorance about the pigeons’ is shown by their idea that they could keep a male pigeon for eggs? It is such a sad, cruel, hopeless and beautifully written story that, even if not of the same quality, it reminded me of one of Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales.
After the wild pigeon falls into the human trap, in the end he comes to the heartbreaking conclusion that the only thing to do is commit suicide and die with dignity. The situation really does seem hopeless. The poet Yasin was jailed by the Chinese authorities for writing this story, ‘inciting splittism’, and reportedly died in prison in 2011.
In the translation on the Radio Free Asia website, blocks of the text were repeated – I was unsure as to whether this was deliberate or a mistake.
As a postscript – The PRC has recently started using surveillance drones disguised as birds, called The Dove, especially in Xinjiang. I’m sure this is a pure coincidence.
YASIN, Nurmuhemmet (Nurmemet) (1977? – 2011?): Wild Pigeon (also: Blue Pigeon), first published in the Kashgar Literary Magazine, 2004, issue 5 (all copies of which were subsequently recalled). Translated by Dr Dolkun Kamberi, 2005 https://www.rfa.org/english/uyghur/wild_pigeon-20050627.html, accessed 14/11/2018.
By the end of that summer, hatred had taken possession of me. I was enthused by it; I felt that it was saving me. Hatred gave me the feeling of superiority I was searching for. I carefully read the pamphlets distributed at every meeting with the other girls and memorized whole sections of them, particularly the fatwas charging other sects with heresy. I became closer to my seven companions and grew to love them. We exchanged secrets and books describing the horrific agonies of the grave. My integration with them saved me from my desires for Ghada, who had in my mind become wretched; she was still far from the power and severity I possessed when asked my opinion on punishing those who showed contempt for religion’s doctrines. I astonished them by requesting to make a list of such girls at my school and seeking permission to disfigure them with acid for wearing tight shirts that clearly showed their breasts. Alya’s eyes shone as she asked me to be patient, as if she already knew the date we would do it.
Sadly, Syria has slipped a fair way down the list (which I’m trying to read in population order) from when I read this book, due to so many of its people being killed in the sickening civil war. But as it seems like the endgame is coming in the war, its time has finally come for a post. You might feel that it is set in today’s war-torn Syria, but it actually takes place in the 1980s, when a previous President Assad oversaw another terrifying massacre in Aleppo. Plus ça change…
This blistering novel is an interesting female perspective on radicalism. The young narrator is consumed by hatred. She hates not only others but even her own body, warring against her awakening sexuality; she despises her mother; sees her own family as hypocrites – since only one member of her family bothers to get up for the dawn prayers. She hates other Muslim groups that she sees as misguided. And she hates the secular but dictatorial government. She is imprisoned, both physically (in practice) and spiritually, and as much by herself as by others; not only by people, but also by institutions and by history. She can only see an enemy (and she is so like them!) – not the (invisible) good majority, only the bad in people and not the good. She fosters hatred as a weapon to gain power – as do so many around her.
When I was studying Middle Eastern history in the early 1980s, the Lebanese civil war was in full fight. My university tutor warned us that some day Syria would blow up into a far bigger conflagration, but since it was ostensibly stable and peaceful that seemed hard to believe at the time. Alas that he proved right.
This is not a happy read, but an insightful and tragic book, brilliantly written, and vital.
KHALIFA, Khaled (خالد خليفة) (1964 – ), In praise of hatred, translated from Arabic by Leri Price, London, Black Swan, 2013, ISBN 978-0-552-77613-4
(first published in Arabic 2008)