Then the guitarist began strumming the chords of another song. They do sing songs like this, Man said. It was Yesterday by the Beatles. As the three of us joined in singing, my eyes grew moist. What was it like to live in a time when one’s fate was not war, when one was not led by the craven and the corrupt, when one’s country was not a basket case kept alive only through the intravenous drip of American aid? I knew none of these young soldiers around me except for my blood brothers and yet I confess that I felt for them all, lost in their sense that within days they would be dead, or wounded, or imprisoned, or humiliated, or abandoned, or forgotten. They were my enemies, and yet they were also brothers-in-arms. Their beloved city was about to fall, but mine was soon to be liberated. It was the end of their world, but only a shifting of worlds for me. So it was that for two minutes we sang with all our hearts, feeling only for the past and turning our gaze from the future, swimmers doing the backstroke toward a waterfall.
I posted on Vietnam back in October 2014, on the long poem The Tale of Kieu, but since then I decided to limit myself to novels, so I had to re-read Vietnam. No hardship, for I discovered this wonderful book which deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
It begins with the chaotic US evacuation as Saigon fell to the communist North Vietnamese in 1975, the end of the Vietnam War as it is known in the West. The protagonist, a captain, flees to the US with his general, who little suspects that the captain is spying for the communists. He becomes enmeshed in and apparently enjoys the American way of life. The captain is split in many ways – half French half Vietnamese, a communist who lived under capitalism in South Vietnam and the US, a Vietnamese and an American. In fact he is a symbol of the split personality of Vietnam itself – North/South, Communist/Capitalist, not to mention of the US, whose double standards of the time are also on full display. There are some unforgettable scenes – the desperate last snafu days as the US fled South Vietnam, the murder, the interrogation, and the Hollywood war movie for which the captain is a reluctant and ignored consultant, and which ends up like a mini war in itself.
Nguyen’s writing is spectacular, dripping with all the irony the situation begs for (his handler is literally a ‘faceless man’, and I’m sure that a ‘sleeper’ agent would find it difficult to sleep!) It was maybe the hardest book so far to choose just one quote to showcase, I wanted to share so many! I can’t recommend it too highly.
NGUYEN, Viet Thanh (1971 – ), The Sympathizer, London, Corsair, 2016, ISBN 978-1-4721-51360 (first published 2015)
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
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
Within two days Loulan seemed to be a wholly unpopulated walled city. The town seemed to have suffered decades of decrepitude in those two days. This was hastened by, on the one hand, the furious blowing of the wind; earthen walls were destroyed, strata of ash-like sand were deposited on every street, and the whole town went ruinously pale. On the evening of the third day, when the wind had hardly fallen, from across the desert came a Han cavalry of several hundred riders to reside there. The depopulated walled city suddenly became filled with voices and neighing. It was on that day when the water of Lop Nor changed into yellow darkness and waves jumped noisily across the entire surface.
As mentioned I haven’t yet been able to find a novel by someone from Xinjiang, so to go with my Uighur short story I’ve added this book which includes the novel Loulan and the novella Fremdregionano (as well as an afterword by the translator), by the Japanese author INOUE Yasushi. Inoue was deeply interested in this region. It is an area that I’ve long been fascinated with, but I couldn’t help being disappointed with this one. Both stories read more like straight histories rather than novels. Perhaps that is almost inevitable considering the vast span of time that ‘Loulan’ covers. Loulan itself is the name of an abandoned ancient city on the southern Silk Road which has been reclaimed by the Taklamakan Desert, and also the name of its kingdom (later renamed Shanshan). It had a brief life of half a century, 2000 years ago. Its inhabitants were neither Uighurs (who arose a long time later) nor Chinese, but it seems they may have been Indo-Europeans and did speak an Indo-European language, Tocharian, so related to English. This unfortunate country was squeezed to death by the Han Dynasty Chinese on one side, and the ‘barbarian’ people they called the Xiongnu (who may have been identical to the Huns who later attacked Europe – Inoue calls them Huns ((hunnoj)) here). There was a third destructive force, the desert which finally claimed the city, and perhaps a fourth, the spirit of the Konche River which abandoned it. (Throughout history the rivers, and the mysterious salt lake Lop Nor which they fed – now notorious as the site of China’s nuclear tests, and non-Chinese are almost never allowed to visit the ruins – have moved around the Tarim Basin). In this story, the Chinese force the abandonment of Loulan in 77 BCE for another city called here Shanshan, actually Yixun (which has not been positively identified); in fact more of the tale takes place in ‘Shanshan’ than in Loulan. (Both of these are Chinese names; Loulan’s real name was Kroraina). This is on the pretext of protecting them from the Huns; Loulan becomes a Chinese military base until it is mysteriously abandoned. As Shanshan, the country remained loyal to China but had to struggle to keep the latter’s interest (and eventually failed, leaving them to the Huns). ‘Loulan’ follows how the kingdom tried various survival strategies, trying to keep both powers on side, then trying to get the Han to protect them from the Huns, all unsuccessful.
Fremdregionano takes part of this history and concentrates on one person, Han governor-general Ban Chao (sent to establish a Chinese protectorate but only temporarily successful) and is perhaps more successful for this. Even so, you don’t really get any idea of his character, let alone any character development. He died almost as soon as he returned to the Chinese capital Luoyang, and the Han abandoned what they called the Western Regions within five years.
The trouble with historical novels, while I love both history and novels, for me is that I find it annoying not knowing what is historical fact (or opinion) and what the author has fictionalised. I got the impression that very little was fictionalised, but it is impossible to be certain.
I found it rather jarring that the place and personal names were taken wholesale from the Chinese Pinyin transcription system, and then the Esperanto morphological endings added on. Even sounds that could be easily transcribed (and thus made pronounceable) in Esperanto orthography, such as ‘sh’, were left in Pinyin form. For example, Shanshan-anoj (inhabitants of Shanshan) could easily have been written ŝanŝananoj. There are some typos and (possibly controversial) neologisms. Some of the names are anachronistic (e.g. the kingdom of Former Cheshi). There are some very long quotes from the Chinese Silk Road travellers Faxian and Xuanzang and the Swedish archaeologist-discoverer Sven Hedin, all of whose full accounts are definitely worth reading if you’re interested in this area.
INOUE Yasushi 井上靖 (1907 – 1991), Loulan kaj Fremdregionano, translated from Japanese into Esperanto by Miyamoto Masao, Serio Oriento-Okcidento 20, Tokyo, Japana Esperanto-Instituto, 1984 [no ISBN].
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)
Should you read the blurb on the cover before reading a novel? I can’t help blaming my slight disappointment with ‘Reef’ on the blurb, and its shortlisting for the 1994 Booker Prize. Don’t get me wrong – the story itself is very readable and well-written. But it is quite lightweight and to compare it to Greene, Naipaul, Narayan and even Shakespeare’s Tempest (as in the quoted reviews) seems quite ridiculous. The blurb touts it as a love story – well the protagonist Triton doesn’t get any (unless you include mentoring). In fact it’s basically about his love for being a super house boy, for a marine biologist – although it’s obvious from his intelligence and fast learning that he will have a lot more to offer the world. He seems to totally miss the dangerous currents swirling around him in the ‘real world’ of the island. The endangered reef that the scientist is studying is obviously a symbol for the fraught political situation facing the country.
Its language is simple but sensuous:
Most of all I missed the closeness of the tank – the reservoir. The lapping of the dark water, flapping lotus leaves, the warm air rippling over it and the cormorants rising, the silent glide of a hornbill. and then those very still moments when the world would stop and only colour move like the blue breath of dawn lightening the sky, or the darkness of night misting the globe; a colour, a ray of curved light and nothing else. The water would be unbroken like a mirror, and the moon would gleam in it. At twilight when the forces of darkness and the forces of light were evenly matched and in balance there was nothing to fear. No demons, no troubles, no carrion. An elephant swaying to a music of its own. A perfect peace that seemed eternal even though the jungle might unleash its fury at any moment.
There are pearls to admire such as the Sri Lankan take on the Biblical flood legend.
As one who has experienced how bizarre Christmas is in Sri Lanka (even more so than here in Australia), I couldn’t help laughing at the experimental cooking of the turkey, with the Professor’s scientific input and Triton’s instinct.
Or is the novel like a reef, and did I just miss the profundities hiding beneath the surface? Perhaps I should re-read it… which will be no hardship.
GUNESEKERA, Romesh (1954-), Reef, London, Granta, 2014, ISBN 978-1-78378-030-3