Category Archives: SMALP2012

The Briefcase (2001) – KAWAKAMI Hiromi

This is the last review I’ll be posting as part of the Shadow Jury for the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize. Sorry for the delay—these last few weeks have been a little hectic, and I haven’t had time to write these up.

As Tsukiko is eating dinner one night in a cheap diner, she realises that the man she is sitting next to is her old high school literature teacher. She strikes up a conversation, and the two reminisce about old times. Over the next six months, they meet again and again, forming a relationship that rapidly becomes hard to define.

It’s hard not to compare The Briefcase to Ogawa Yoko’s work , The Housekeeper and the Professor. They even came out at a similar time—Ogawa’s in 2003; Kawakami’s in 2001. Both tell the tale of an unlikely friendship between an older man and a younger woman. Neither have any hint of romance in them, and in many ways, both are actually more about the man than the female narrator.

What I love about The Briefcase, though, is its simplicity, and Kawakami’s almost stubborn refusal to try and spice up the plot with some action or huge conflict. These two people—Sensei and Tsukiko—meet up every now and then, usually not on purpose, and share small parts of their lives. For Tsukiko, this is a chance to leave her otherwise isolated life (she lives alone, and finds her family a little annoying), to take part in conversation with someone. People talk about Murakami Haruki being the great chronicler of isolation in contemporary Japan, but he is not alone in this. It’s a project undertaken by many modern Japanese authors, who often do it—dare I say—much better than Murakami ever could.

There is no coherent through-line to follow. Instead, each chapter is a different encounter—I’d call them dates, but that doesn’t seem quite right, particularly since hints of romance don’t really appear until much, much later in the novel. But with each encounter, some more of the hidden background of each character is revealed.

With Sensei, for example, there is a sense, right from the beginning, that he is a widower—when Tsukiko visits his house for the first time, she remarks on his beautiful garden. When he replies that it was his wife, the implicit subtext is that his wife is dead. I mean, come on—elderly man refusing to talk about his wife? The obvious answer is that she passed away, and that he loved her very much. When we find out several chapters late that she actually left him, it comes as a bit of a surprise. It leads us to re-evaluate our understanding of the character—if she chose to leave him (already surprising in a country whose divorce rate is something like 10%), then why? What is it about him that she couldn’t stand?

The Briefcase is a novel about the smallness of human connection, and the huge importance of that smallness. It is about two people finding love and comfort in the most unlikely of places. It is not large, it is not showy, but it is a deeply humane book.

 

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Silent House (1982) – Orhan PAMUK

I’m in a bit of a bind, so you’ll have to bear with me. The books that usually appear on this blog are the ones I’ve finished. I don’t put stuff up here about books I don’t finish, because, well, if you haven’t finished a book, there’s not really any point in reviewing it, right?

The bind is this. I have to review this book. I promised to read and review all the shortlisted titles on the Man Asian Longlist this year as part of the Shadow Jury. But I can’t finish Silent House. I just can’t.

I have tried. I have, since the beginning of the year, had it sat next to my bed as other, more interesting novels pass me by. I have, every few days, girdled my loins and opened the pages, in an attempt to penetrate a wall of text that simply isn’t going in.

I have made it through about 150 pages, which is about 120 pages more than I otherwise would have. I have no excuse, other than this: I now fully understand why English-speaking publishers waited thirty years to have this, Pamuk’s second novel, published.

Set in the dilapidated seaside village of Cennethisar, it tells the story of a family coming together under one house for the first time in years. The matriarch of the family who owns the house, Fatma, is living in the past, remembering her glory days when her husband, the town doctor, knew everyone and everything. Her helper, Recep, is the bastard son of her late husband, and also a dwarf. To say the two have a tense relationship would be an understatement. Despite his best attempts to provide her every need, the old woman cannot see past the fact that this man is the symbol of her husband’s infidelity, and refuses to acknowledge anything he does as a good thing.

The grandchildren that have arrived in the town see their grandmother as old and decrepit – which, in their defence, is the public appearance she has. This is perhaps the most interesting part of the novel – the fact that Fatma, in the chapters she narrates, seems to be still quite sharp and with-it, but hre outward physicality is failing her sharp mind. Certainly for the first half, though, nothing is really made of this, an angle that could have been pushed so much further.

Other chapters are narrated by Fatma’s grandchildren, including the dull-as-dishwater Faruk, an academic writing about some obscure part of history; Recap himself, who spends much of his personal time defending himself from people calling him names and otherwise being unkind; Hasan, the young student who seems to have fallen in with the wrong crowd – a crowd who go around threatening local shopkeepers to pay them protection money; and Metin, who, to be honest, I’m having trouble recalling.

It all seems so insignificant, which is ironic, considering the political undertones of Hanum’s activities, including his love for Nilgun, a self-proclaimed leftist. There’s so much potential there, but none of it comes to light. Well, maybe it does later, but I’m out.

Sorry, guys. I just didn’t get this one at all.

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MAL Prize Shortlist Thoughts (Updated)

EDIT:

The shortlist for the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize has just been announced. There are five books on the list:

Between Clay and Dust – Musharraf Ali Farroqi (Pakistan)
The Briefcase – Hiromi Kawakami (Japan)
Silent House – Orhan Pamuk (Turkey)
The Garden of Evening Mists – Tan Twan Eng (Malaysia)
Narcopolis – Jeet Thayil (India)

I’m happy to see Between Clay and Dust and The Garden of Evening Mists there. I’m content to see Narcopolis there. I haven’t read the other two, though I will now get on that.

I mentioned in the earlier version of this post (keep scrolling to see it) that I would be devastated if two books didn’t make it to the shortlist. Neither of them did. Northern Girls, by Sheng Keyi, and Thinner Than Skin, by Uzma Aslam Khan, are both excellent novels – the first, an angry, passionate debut about feminism in China; the second, a beautiful, elegiac look at forgiveness and revenge in humanity. If you get a chance, please look for them – I love them both.

It’s interesting to see no Chinese book on the shortlist – for the first time ever in the prize. I’m also a little saddened that, of the 9 women on the longlist, only one of them made it to the shortlist. I am happy, though, that each author is from a different country, covering the entire Asian region.

The Shadow Jury has its work cut out for it, now that the shortlist is out. We will be announcing our winner a few days before the real winner is announced on 14 March 2013.

 

ORIGINAL POST:

In a little over five hours, the shortlist for the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize will be announced in Hong Kong.

I have no idea what will be on the list. Apart from one or two dodgy entries, the quality of writing for this year’s longlist has been, I think, of a higher average quality than last year. Most excitingly, though, is the emergence of small presses on the longlist – many of my favourite entries have come from small presses both in Asia and the rest of the world. It bodes well for the future of writing in the Asia-Pacific region.

I’ve only read ten of the novels on the fifteen-strong longlist: I’ve not had a chance to look at either of the Turkish novels, Orhan Pamuk’s Silent House and Elif Shafak’s Honour, or Roma Tearne’s The Road to Urbino; Hiromi Kawakami’s The Briefcase I’m saving for the end of the month for a group read; and I still can’t source a copy of Benyamin’s Goat Days. I had planned on having my review of Island of a Thousand Mirrors up this morning, but got lazy and haven’t finished writing it yet. It will be up by the end of the week.

Keeping this in mind, I’ve only chosen a dream shortlist of five novels. And in no particular order (well, in alphabetical order), here’s what I’d like to see on that list.

Between Clay and Dust, Musharraf Ali Farooqi (Pakistan)
Thinner Than Skin, Uzma Aslam Khan (Pakistan)
Island of a Thousand Mirrors, Nayomi Munaweera (Sri Lanka)
Northern Girls, Sheng Keyi (China)
The Garden of Evening Mists, Tan Twan Eng (Malaysia)

I will be devastated if two of those novels don’t make it on to the shortlist – but I won’t tell you quite yet what they are. There are some other novels that I won’t mind being there – Narcopolis and The Bathing Women were pretty close.

To read the other reviews of Shadow Jury, see this page, where I’ve collated all that have been published so far. We’ve achieved our goal of every longlisted novel being reviewed by at least one of us. We will all read all the shortlist, and announce our winner a few days before the real winner is revealed on 14 March 2013.

As ever, visit the Man Asian Literary Prize website here, or follow all the action on Twitter using the hashtag #manasian.

Black Flower (2003) – KIM Young-ha

It’s safe to say that, by far, this was the novel I was most looking forward to reading when the Man Asian Literary Prize longlist was announced. A fan of Kim’s previous novel, Your Republic is Calling You, the idea that he was turning his gaze to an obscure moment in Korean diaspora history made me very, very excited. And it’s because of these expectations that I was a little disappointed in what I found.

In 1904, a ship set sail from Busan. It carried one thousand Koreans, bound for Mexico, where they have been promised a new life, away from the oncoming storm that is the Japanese Empire. But when they arrive, they discover that everything they have been told is a lie. They are there to be indentured labour, unlikely to ever return to their homes. So they must make a new life for themselves in a foreign country, halfway around the globe.

I love research. I love reading books, finding references to other books, creating a web of information and knowledge. I also know that researching is about a million times more fun than writing—you can do all this reading and call it work without anyone blinking an eye. But there is a point where you must put down your books and get writing. I think Kim probably got to this point too late in his writing of this book, leaving it full of interesting facts about the story he is telling, to the detriment of the actual heart of literature. It’s all good and well to take an historical event and turn it into a novel, but you have to remember why you did it in the first place. If you are more concerned with the event than how the event affected the people, then maybe you should think about writing a non-fiction work.

The historical background Kim is writing about is fascinating. Admittedly, I just spent the last year writing about the Korean diaspora in Japan, so I have an interest in Korean diasporic movement. But like the Koreans in Japan, and indeed, like the Japanese in Brazil, a group of about 1000 Koreans were lured to the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico with the promise of hard work, then freedom and riches. Of course, as with most mass migrations like this in the early twentieth century, this was a well-executed lie to get cheap Asian labour to parts of the Western world to avoid rising wages for Western workers.

This exploitation of people who don’t know any better is a legitimate and worthy part of twentieth century to explore through fiction. There are so many stories to tell: the family torn apart, the new immigrant worked to the bone, the coming together of people in times of need, the breakdown of social and cultural mores in the face of adversity. Kim touches on all of these, but in passing—he is far more keen to fill our faces with minor details about Mexican history that, while do inform the novel, are out of place in a text of this length. The ratio of character moments to historical detail is weighted far too heavily toward the latter. I don’t say this often, but if he wanted to keep all that detail in there, he would have been much better off doing so as part of a much longer, epic, widescreen work. Too often I found myself skimming over passages about the intricacies of the Mexican Revolution that had nothing to do with any of the main characters.

The blurb of my edition suggests that this will be a love story, between a young man reborn on his trip to Mexico, Kim Ijeong, and the daughter of an aristocratic caught up in the trip, Yi Yeonsu. Their relationship certainly informs much of the novel. Their meeting on the ship is by chance, and foreshadows much of the degradation of social systems that will rapidly take place once the thousand have left Korea. Of course, as with all teenagers left unwatched, their relationship quickly becomes physical.  When they arrive in Mexico, they are taken to different haciendas, farm/estates where Koreans are used as cheap labour. They manage to meet up again, and in one of their secret trysts, conceive a child. But Ijeong is caught up in other events, and he leaves, completely oblivious to the fact that he has just fathered a child.

And the two never meet again. They go their separate ways, living their own lives, caught up in the Mexican Revolution that seems to catch so many Koreans in its wake. Or maybe that’s just Kim putting his characters where he wants them so he can talk more about Mexican history.

Unsurprisingly, the best parts of the novel are the ones where Kim ignores all the history going on and focuses on his characters. The role of religion plays a huge part in the novel, right from before everyone boards the ship, when a priest, Bak Jeonghun, is robbed of his cross, by a thief, Choe Seongil. Though, at this stage in history, not so many Koreans are Christian, they are brought to Mexico, which is. And so tension arises when the Koreans want to practice their own funeral/marriage ceremonies, even though they are what might be viewed as heathen by some Christians. It’s a strand that, actually, could have been brought out even more to highlight the cultural differences between the two groups. Sadly, this was not to be.

I feel like this is the second time I’ve said this in as many months, but if you are looking for a story about the labourer exodus from Asia in the early twentieth century, there really is no better novel than Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic. Though Kim reaches for similar heights, trying to tell the story of thousands at once, Black Flower falls short of his target. Too caught up in the macro, he forgets that the best literature focuses on the macro, the personal stories that act as a mirror for history.

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Between Clay and Dust (2012) – Musharraf Ali FAROOQI

Staying in Pakistan, though admittedly with a complete shift in tone, today’s longlisted Man Asian Literary Prize novel is Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s Between Clay and Dust, published by small Indian press Alpha Books. I don’t have a particular interest in sport novels, but then again, I read Chinaman and loved it, so I’m willing to be wowed again.

The old city, standing at the centre of the new city, is home to many people who have lived through a lot. One of the these people is Ustad Ramzi, well-known champion pahalwan, clinging to the old noble ways of wrestling. Another is Gohar Jan, an ageing courtesan, who is also hoping for a return to the old times. But the rest of society is moving past them, and together, they must weather the changes.

If Anjali Joseph’s novel is about the youth of today, then Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s Between Clay and Dust provides us with a look at the opposite end of the spectrum. His characters are elderly and tired, having spent their lives in the service of their respective careers.

There’s probably little better in the world to act as a metaphor for fragility and ageing than sport. It doesn’t matter which sport it is—the idea of someone falling hard and fast from their physical and mental prime, falling from the ultimate symbol of (in this case) male strength and virility is a powerful one. In this case, Farooqi uses wrestling, complete with the trappings of culture and tradition that are inherent in these kinds of things to tell the story of modernisation, of young against old, of an old man realising he has no place in the modern world.

This is played out in the relationship between the two brothers that run the akhara. Ustad Ramzi, the older, has been reigning regional champion for many years, but he has come to realise that he can no longer handle the physical and mental demands of his chosen profession. But he cannot give the reigns of running the stables to his much younger brother, Tamami, who has spent his life living in the shadow of his much more successful older brother. And so Farooqi tells the story of an age-old tension—two brothers with different points of view and different agendas.

In many ways Ustad Ramzi create the Tamami he doesn’t like and cannot trust. He refuses to let his younger brother take over any duties or activities of the akhara, and so Tamami turns to acting out, to not taking wrestling seriously, as a way to kill time, or perhaps to attract the attention of his older brother. Neither trust the other to do what they want, because of the history between them. There is no easy way out for either of them to break this cycle.

But it is Ramzi who is the first to break. He allows Tamami to take the mantle of head fighter of the family stable, and there is a montage scene (because, what sporting story is complete without a good training montage?) in which Tamami bulks up in preparation for the bout against a representative of the opposing stable. Of course, Tamami loves the attention and the training he is getting, because he feels like he has deserved this for a long time. The ensuing fight is tough, and Tamami has been so trained, so conditioned to get angry when he fights, he snaps, and accidentally kills his opponent.

Ironically, it is Ramzi’s driving away of Tamami that causes the eventual collapse of the akhara, not the fact that Tamami is a new breed of pahalwan, willing to do things Ramzi might not once have been willing to do. His intense training for the bout caused his anger to rise, and he lashed out at his opponent. Wracked with guilt over what he as done, he turns to drugs, and so beginning a spiral to the bottom.

The sport itself is changing, too. There are promoters now, people trying to sell tickets and make the sport more exciting for those who pay good money for an evening’s entertainment. In many ways, it is no longer about the sport, but about the spectacle of the sport. People want to see something exciting, even if it means sacrificing traditions and long-held ideas about how the sport should be played. Gulab Deen sets up a stable of wrestlers willing to sacrifice some of the more traditional aspects of wrestling to make it more exciting, to have exhibition matches, to occasionally know the outcome of the match before it has even begun. Needless to say, Ustad Ramzi does not approve of Gulab Deen and his ways, but Tamami, someone willing to rebel against Ustad Ramzi in any way he can, finds himself a part of this merry band of wrestlers.

The side plot to all this is Ustad Ramzi’s relationship with Gohar Jan, the head of the local brothel—though that might be too strong a word. She, too, is finding her age catching up with her: as the world changes, she finds fewer people needing her services, or the services of her girls. Much of their relationship is left unsaid, but Ramzi finds solace in a woman he has known for a long time, and together, they enjoy traditional dance and music. These are nice scenes, and I would have liked to see more of this pushed throughout the novel.

It’s interesting to note that both main characters uphold what could politely be termed as traditional gender roles. Ustad Ramzi has spent his life riding on the fact that he is physically strong and imposing, using his masculinity to frighten others inside the ring, giving him celebrity and respect outside the ring. Meanwhile, Gohar Jan uses her femininity to make money from men looking for physical and emotional comfort.

Farooqi pulls these strands together in a very short novel(la). Many scenes are little more than a page long, lending the work a sense of control and precision usually seen in good short stories. But this is a full-length work, and Farooqi tackles his themes with aplomb. A small, but well-formed meditation on what it means to get old.

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Thinner Than Skin (2012) – Uzma Aslam KHAN

I’m heading west, away from the holy trinity of North East Asia to the mountains of Pakistan. This is Uzma Aslam Khan’s fourth novel, the second to be published by small American press, Clockroot Books.

Having decided to go to Pakistan to research glaciers deep in the mountains of the wild north, Farhana and Nadir quickly find themselves out of their comfort zone. Already living an unstable relationship, their lives quickly spiral out of their own control, leaving them in a strange country, surrounded by even stranger people, moving away from safety, hoping against all hope that things will get better.

How much blame can we ascribe to one event? Can one event, one moment in time, truly affect us more than the accumulation of the smaller bits and pieces of our everyday lives? These are the questions Khan is seeking to answer, while at the same time, leading us on a tour of what must be one of the most beautiful, dangerous and underexplored parts of the globe.

Saif-ul-Maluk (جھیل سیف الملوک) is a lake in northern Pakistan, near the borders of Afghanistan, Tajikistan, China and India. It is a glacial lake, formed by the melt from the glaciers in the mountain ranges surrounding it. Saif-ul-Maluk is also the spiritual, physical and literary heart of the novel. It is easy to trace every event in the novel to and from the shores of Saif-ul-Maluk

Critics often talk about landscape and place becoming a character in a book, and while it often sounds wanky and ridiculous, there is a school of writing that foregrounds the environments in which stories take place. Cormac McCarthy, for example, uses southern USA in his work, while Tim Winton evokes Western Australia in his. Just like this, then, Khan makes full use of the area in which she has set her tale to inform and enrich her own tale. From the descriptions of the lake itself, to the evocations of San Francisco, to the final third, which is set on a mountain face in the Himalayas, Khan connects her story to the environments in which it is set. This adds a dimension not seen in so many novels, a dimension that pays huge dividends.

Farhana and Nadir have come to Pakistan with another American friend, Wes, despite Nadir’s misgivings. It is ostensibly a reason for Farhana to come to the country of her mother, to find an identity she feels she has lost having been brought up in America, though this is not a theme Khan seems to pursue with any particular enthusiasm—something I am grateful for. She is more concerned with far more universal themes, one in particular.

Forgiveness.

People do bad things every day. They do things that hurt the people they love the most; they do things that hurt complete strangers. How do we react to these moments of wrongdoing? Do we forgive the people who hurt us? And so we don’t just get the first person musings of Nadir, who is consumed with guilt over the events on the lake, though his recollections seem to be open to questions. Khan gives us alternating chapters told in third person, with Maryam the focus. In fact, it is Maryam that opens the novel, and her reflections on family and fate are what tie the novel to the mountains against which it is set.

Inevitably, then, the opposite of forgiveness is also explored—revenge. This is certainly the preoccupation of Maryam’s story strand, even if she herself does not necessarily want to undertake the act herself. Payment must be made for the death of her daughter, and as Irfan points out at one stage, this would usually be in the form of a court system or a police force, but because of where they are, nothing like this exists. Instead, it is up to the people to hand out justice/revenge. Interestingly, it is Nadir who eventually becomes the target of this justice, because Farhana is a woman, so cannot be touched. Or so he thinks—as with all first-person narrators, his recollection of events is not exactly accurate.

The biggest problem with this novel is that it makes me want to go to Saif-ul-Maluk, which is probably not a good life choice, because it’s a deeply unsafe part of the world—something that provides yet another layer to the backdrop of these intensely personal events taking place. The threat of sectarian violence—the kind we see on the news with depressing regularity—is mentioned again and again by all the characters, though three of our main four seem quite blasé about it. Of course, as with all good Chekov’s guns, if you refer to something again and again, chances are it’s going to become important by the end of the text. So, inevitably, terrorism rears its ugly head at the end of the novel, nicely tying in with other themes. Nadir and Farhana have not escaped cleanly from the crime they committed: as with all small communities—even ones that are constantly on the move—word gets around, and the option for revenge, for payback is taken. It takes time to eventuate, but Nadir discovers much too late that people have been watching him, ever since they left the lake.

Without spoiling too much of the ending, it is revenge that eventually wins out, in ways not entirely expected. Nadir and Farhana are finally made to pay for what they did to Maryam’s family, by a man who professes to be a friend; while lingering questions are finally answered as someone else chooses the path of revenge, though in a far more public manner. It is easy to plan revenge, but much harder to allow forgiveness in: it is, of course, thinner than skin.

Dealing with themes of forgiveness and revenge—base human emotions that we all experience, Thinner Than Skin is a layered, complex and mature novel from a writer at the height of her powers. It is perfectly constructed, both structurally and thematically, devoid of unnecessary words and ideas. Khan is in control of the language she uses to tell her story, leaving the reader blown away both by the power of the English language to describe both the natural and the internal.

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Another Country (2012) – Anjali JOSEPH

Moving away from China, and indeed, all of East Asia, I’m continuing my journey down the Man Asian Literary Prize. Anjali Joseph is from Bombay, though went to university in England. Unsurprisingly, then, her fiction deals with the migrant experience in England, exploring the ways in which identity is created by those around you, and by those who raised you.

Leela doesn’t know what to do with her life. Stuck teaching English in Paris, she sleeps with men, but doesn’t feel the need to go anything further. Finding her life in Paris unfulfilling, she returns to England, where she went to university, to see if she can reconnect with her friends, but there is nothing there for her. She decides to move to Bombay, where her parents live, to see if she can reconnect with her homeland. But  nothing is ever as easy as it seems.

Why do we write fiction? To tell a rollicking good story? To tell people about history? Do we do it to explore the human condition? It’s probably a combination of all of these things—and more—but if Joseph is trying to tap in to any of these, she seems wildly off the mark. Certainly this is not what I would term an action-packed novel. Almost nothing of any consequence happens. And it’s not an historical novel, so we’re not looking at the ways in which history mirrors the present. So we’re left with the human condition.

If this is an exploration of the human condition, then it’s a damning indictment of young people today. Though her friends seem to be nice enough people, with stable jobs and stable relationships, Leela finds herself outside the mainstream, because she cannot deal with settling down in either a job or a relationship.

But this isn’t an angry novel. Joseph isn’t aggrieved at her fellow Gen Y kids—or if she is, she doesn’t show it in her writing. Leela is not portrayed as a figure to be pitied or one that should enrage us. Just like Leela, the writing seems apathetic. Joseph is concerned with the minutiae of Leela’s daily life, down to the conversations with her friends about what kind of drink they should get from the bar. We don’t get grand, sweeping statements, and though that’s not what I necessarily look for in a novel, some hints as to what the whole point is would have been nice.

In many ways, the three sections of the novel are informed by the three men Leela finds herself involved with: Simon in Paris; Richard, in London; and Vikram, in Bombay. Each one gets closer and closer to a real relationship, but each time, Leela pulls back at the last minute, unable to commit to any man, or indeed, any other person. She has trouble communicating with anyone in Paris, seems isolated and distant from her friends in England, and spends much of her time in Bombay ill.

Her relationship with Simon starts as something spontaneous and exciting, but all too soon, Leela finds herself wondering and stressing about the boundaries (or lack thereof) in a relationship that has never been defined. Certainly, a modern problem if ever there was one, and a situation that could easily be mined for dramatic fodder. But Joseph pulls back,

An unspecified time jump brings us to London, where Leela has taken up with a man named Richard, though at the beginning, Simon still seems to be in the picture. Richard, unlike Simon, seems to want a serious relationship, though Leela remains unconvinced, to the point where she breaks up with him late one night, unable to explain what it is that went wrong. Needless to say, Richard isn’t impressed with this, and though he tries to fix what is wrong, ultimately, she cannot explicate what it is that she doesn’t like.

We move time and space again, this time finding Leela in Bombay, doing some secretarial work for a small Indian company. In spite of living in an all-female dorm (once again finding herself unable to communicate with the people she lives with), she finds Vikram, and strikes up a relationship with him. It seems to be going well—Leela is introduced to his over-protective, horribly wealthy mother, who doesn’t seem to like Leela at all. In fact, it gets to the stage where they are engaged, but in the end, Leela breaks it off.

Despite her physical movement, Leela remains restless and isolated. In Paris, this can be attributed to her inability to speak French. She cannot talk to people on the street, leaving her with few friends and acquaintances she can call on in times of need. In London, she has been away long enough for her friends to have moved on from her, not in an unkind way, but enough time has passed that they simply find each other to be strangers. Questions of racial identity are brought up—something that we have certainly come to expect from authors that move around the globe like Joseph has done—and while any other author might explore the ways in which race disconnects us in the modern world, this doesn’t seem to be a factor in Leela’s listlessness. It’s decidedly odd. Like so many members of Gen Y, Leela’s formative years have been shaped by movement, and Joseph seems to be suggesting that it is this, not race, class or gender, that has created a generation of people who are more disconnected from one another than ever before. On a personal note, I would politely disagree with this sentiment.

Another Country is not a difficult book to read, but it’s also not really very interesting. I can deal with a book that has no plot, but to then not have much character development either? Leela doesn’t feel any different at the end as she did at the beginning. She hasn’t learned to work at a relationship, she hasn’t come to any great discovery about a modern global identity, she (if we’re going to go all retro about the role of women in fiction) hasn’t even met someone to settle down with. It doesn’t feel like she’s learnt anything about how to live in the modern world, no matter where she finds herself.

It’s all deeply unsatisfying, really.

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The Bathing Women (2000) – TIE Ning

Continuing with the Chinese women longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize, I find myself faced with a book described by Ōe Kenzaburō as “one of the best ten literary works in the world of the past ten years”. That’s a big claim, so I was intrigued to see what Ōe saw in the novel by the first female president of the Chinese Writers Association.

Spanning the first thirty years of the lives of two sisters, The Bathing Women charts the maturation of Tiao and Fei, sisters of two people banished from Beijing for their naughty ways. But as Tiao and Fei discover, their parent’s marriage is less than happy, and when their mother has an affair, they are upset. But when a child is born from this affair, Tiao and Fei find themselves even more conflicted.

The first thing to say is that the writing is exquisite, no doubt thanks to Hongling Zhang and Jason Sommer’s translation. Tie’s sentences are both decorative and meaningful, straddling that line between purple prose and literary description in an almost perfect manner.

There’s one part of the translation that does intrigue me. Rebels and revolutionaries are termed “hooligans,” a theme that is returned to again and again, though not directly. Instead, Tie gives us the opportunity to examine what it means to be the family of someone who has been branded a revolutionary, someone who is driven to suicide because of the constant watching and insulting.

The most obvious manner in which this is done is Fei’s mother, Teacher Tang, who, in a rather harrowing scene early on in the book, is made to stand in front of an entire primary school, where she is then subjected to what can only be described as mob justice from a whole load of angry teachers egging on impressionable young children. It culminates in her being made to literally eat shit, and though she refuses at first, in the end, she complies. All this because she had a child out of wedlock. That child, Fan, eventually becomes friends with Tiao and Fei, and the impact of her mother’s suicide, and her growing up with her uncle, Dr Tang, seems to be that she becomes something of a wild child, a trait that continues well into her adult life.

Teacher Tang is not the only hooligan in the novel. Tiao and Fei’s own parents, Wu and Yixun, have been banished from Beijing for crimes that are never made explicit, but they are sent to a farm to work, though for some reason, their daughters are not allowed. Instead, they live in an apartment in Fuan, the city nearest the re-education farm, though their solitude does not last long. Their mother, Wu, comes back complaining of dizzy spells, and though the doctor does not find anything physically wrong with her, the two start a relationship that allows her to stay with her daughters in their tiny apartment.

Of course, as with all secret affairs, the consequences are never pretty. When Wu discovers she is pregnant to Dr Tang, she decides to keep the child. For a long time, we are unsure as to whether her husband, Yuxin, actually knows the third daughter is not his, but his behaviour would suggest he fully comprehends the situation. The resentment Tiao and Fei feel toward their mother’s selfish (in their eyes) behaviour is to transfer that hatred to the new child, Quan. This reaches a head one day, when Quan falls into an uncovered manhole in the courtyard of their apartment block, and though the two girls see it happen, they do nothing to stop it. Ostensibly, it is the guilt they feel from these actions that inform the rest of the life choices.

Up to this point, the novel is good, if not great. Sadly, the second half does not live up to the promise of what came before, and comes across as disjointed, both structurally and thematically. We move away from two young girls growing up in the shadow of their mother’s affair to two young women failing to find affairs of their own. I suppose the obvious link between the two sections is the fact that Tiao never had a good female role model growing up, resulting in an inability to form close relationships with men as an adult.

Arguably the largest problem with the second half of the novel is that Fei’s story is skipped over quite quickly, leaving one feeling rather unbalanced. Though we track Tiao’s adult life quite closely, including her two relationships, Fei’s story—that of moving to America to find a better life—is told, not shown, and suffers because of it. That’s not to say it’s not an interesting story—the relationship between the willing migrant and her motherland is rich in questions of identity, family and nationalism, but Tie makes only fleeting attempts to draw these out in a complex manner.

What does make it onto the page, though, is interesting. Fei, leaving China in the hope of finding a better life, turns into one of those people who hates on their homeland while they are away, perhaps to fit in more with the locals, perhaps to cover their insecurity. Her ability to speak English fluently gets her far in America, and she eventually marries an American man, though the relationship is far from happy. When she comes back to China, which she does sporadically throughout her twenties, she finds herself in the strange position of not feeling at home, having immersed herself in the ways of American cultural superiority.

Though Fei seems to reach an uneasy happiness by the end of the novel, Tiao seems just as discontent with her life as she did at the beginning. She remains isolated and alone, unable to connect with anyone else in a meaningful way. The only man she ever loved, the same man who agreed to marry her, has been pushed away by her sense of duty to his first wife, and she chooses a life of romantic solitude.

Ultimately, while I could appreciate the writing, the novel never hit the emotional heights I suppose I wanted from a story that promised to detail the lives of two sisters coming to terms with the fact that they helped cause the death of their younger sibling at a young age. And that first half is very good, detailing fragile relationships between mother and daughters. But the second half fails to deliver what was promised, falling apart into a rambling, meandering mess.

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Northern Girls (2004) – SHENG Keyi

Continuing my reading of the Man Asian Literary Prize longlist, I find myself in China. I’m intrigued by this novel, not least because it is printed by Penguin China, the first Asian branch of the publishing powerhouse now known as Penguin Random House. Designed to promote Chinese literature, and literature about China, I think I’m right in saying this is the first translation they’ve commissioned.

Xiaohong and Sijiang are ‘northern girls’ (beimei; 北妹), girls from the country who have come to Shenzhen to look for work and money. Xiaohong has been caught sleeping with her sister’s fiancée, and to escape the family shame, she has dragged Sijiang with her to the big smoke to find their fortunes. But it is not easy being a country girl in a big city, and as Xiaohong and Sijiang are about to discover, friends are hard to find.

There is a brutality, a grittiness, to Sheng’s writing that shines through Shelly Bryant’s translation. I don’t know if this is just because we are in southern China, far away from the cultural centre that is Beijing, but the characters in Northern Girls are just that little less couth, that little more grating, than one might expect from the capital. Most of the main characters, not just Xiaohong and Sijiang, are working-class, rough and ready, an attribute that is made only more clear when they encounter characters with higher social standing.

The huge cultural differences in China are a barrier for Xiaohong and Sijiang in their move to Shenzhen. Though Mandarin is the official language of China, and spoken in Beijing and surrounding areas, in the provinces, particularly the rural ones, dialects are spoken that are not intelligible to one another. So when the two girls move to Shenzhen, they must learn to speak both standard Mandarin, and some Cantonese, spoken in the southern provinces where they now live. It’s a reminder of not just the metro-rural divide of China, but of the deeply diverse cultural divide in a country that houses one-seventh of the world’s population.

Sheng does seem deeply concerned with breasts. Indeed, time and time again, the size and heft of Xiaohong’s breasts are mentioned by the narrator, and by the other people she encounters. But this is not a creepy, Murakami-style fetishisation of breasts. Sheng uses them as a symbol of femininity in her work. Breasts are arguably the most feminine of body parts, and the link between the state of one’s breasts and how one is viewed by society is one Sheng makes clear in her work. In the beginning, then, Xiaohong’s breasts are what get her into trouble—men lust after them, and being young, she is happy to go along with it. In the final chapters, though, her breasts begin to grow, heavier and heavier. They weigh her down, and have become a burden. Being a woman in modern China is not something that is easy; it is a burden that must be carried around at all times.

Certainly by Western standards, this book would probably be termed feminist. Sheng is deeply concerned with how modernity in China affects women, young women in particular, and the ways in which they are used by men in positions of power—and indeed, men not in positions of power—simply as objects for sexual pleasure. So few of the men encountered by Xiaohong seem to be decent human beings. Without fail, each one of them ogles her ample bosom. And at first, she seems happy to go along with this, and beds many men. But as she matures, she does this less and less, learning to reject the advances of the men who try to get with her.

Sheng is keen to bring women’s issues to the foreground. Xiaohong finds herself working in a women and children’s hospital, in the PR department, of all places. This allows Sheng to subtly, but clearly deliberately, bring the issue of reproductive rights in China to the forefront of her novel. By the end, Xiaohong has had two abortions, from sexual encounters she did not initiate. Several other minor female characters have also had abortions, either because they have been raped, or because they are not allowed to have children, or because they have slept with someone they shouldn’t have. It becomes almost second-nature to just go and have an abortion when you have discovered you are pregnant and know you cannot keep the baby. And the point is repeatedly made—this is something only women have to decide and endure. Many of the men that have fathered these children never know about it. It is something they will never have to think about or be reminded of in the future. This is women’s business.

This all comes to a head when, one night, Sijiang is mistaken for another woman, and is forcibly sterilised by the government. Think about that sentence. Forcibly sterilised by the government. It’s an horrific concept, and if I didn’t know any better, I’d say it was out of some post-apocalyptic future. But this really happens. It’s a harrowing scene, and Sheng tells it with a grace that belies the rest of the novel, perhaps proving her skill as a writer. And so Sijiang decides to return home. She has been eaten up and spat out by this huge city and cannot take it any longer. Xiaohong decides to remain, but the last sentence, in which she disappears into the crowd, just another anonymous face, highlights the journey she is taking – away from individuality, and towards an uncertain future.

I know this all makes Northern Girls sound terribly dull and intense, but it isn’t. Certainly at the beginning, Xiaohong’s refusal to take any crap from anyone, whether they be her family or people she’s just met on the street, is not only funny, but a refreshing change from so many simpering female protagonists we’ve all read in so many novels. She is a brilliant creation, acting not just as a symbol of an entire generation of girls coming to the big city to find work and riches, but as a human being I think we’d all like to meet.

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Ru (2009) – Kim THÚY

This novel caught my eye a while ago for a variety of reasons. A Vietnamese-Canadian writer, Kim Thúy originally wrote this novel in French in 2009, though it was translated into English in 2011. It was shortlisted for the Giller Prize in 2012. I’m a big fan of postcolonial writings, and a short novel on the immigrant experience in Canada struck me as something perhaps something similar to that in Australia.

Nguyen An Tinh was a boat person. Escaping persecution in Communist Vietnam, her family escapes to Canada where they try to build a new life, one they never thought they would lead. But An Tinh finds herself floating through life, unable to put down roots, despite having grown up in Canada, and having two young sons. This is her story, the story of a refugee coming to the West, of a young child growing up, of a mother coming to terms with the realities of being a parent.

I read this short novel in under three hours. It’s easy to read, not just because of how it is set out (Many of the sections are less than a page, more memory fragments or musings about life than true ‘chapters’), but because Thúy constructs a tale that is engaging and well-written, stopping short of over-wrought writing. She sprinkles Vietnamese words and text throughout the novel to create that sense of foreignness that seems to be key to writing an “authentic” immigrant experience. Unrelated to the novel itself – my edition had some weird typographical stuff going on, and I’m not sure the publishers are used to using Vietnamese script in their work, because there were some iffy

Plot is not something this novel has in spades. Or at all, really. Instead, it is a series of jumbled up fragments, things that come to the protagonist as she remembers them. She wants to tell her story, but she finds herself sidetracked by other memories – from both before and after her move to Canada – that are at least as interesting as the glimpses of a privileged life in Canada. It’s an interesting point of view to take—so often, refugees are portrayed as the persecuted poor, but in actual fact, here, the protagonist’s family is the bourgeoisie class in Vietnamese society that was so hated by the Communist regime that took power in 1975. Her life is one of privilege—her mother has never had to lift a finger to do any work in her life, but she teachers her children to do some, perhaps because she is aware that the political situation is fragile.

The journey between this life in Vietnam and her adult life is the least developed section of An Tinh’s life. We get glimpses of the perilous boat trip her family took, as well as her eventual, if gradual, integration into Canadian society. There are scenes of An Tinh finding her feet in school, despite not understanding a word of French; of her teacher calling her parents to make sure she wasn’t eating rice and noodles for breakfast, even though this is a standard Vietnamese breakfast. There are hints of past relationships, of her coming to understand what it means to love and be loved.

What strikes me most of all about her character, though, is her intense isolation from the rest of the world. She is no longer Vietnamese, but does not feel Canadian. She is just as happy sleeping in a hotel bed as she is her own. If she didn’t have children, she wouldn’t be afraid of dying. These thoughts highlight her dislocation and disconnect from the world of the everyday. Thúy equates this isolation with the life An Tinh has lived, with the constant movement she has found herself undertaking, both voluntary and involuntary.

The other story that comes out of this novel is An Tinh’s life now. In many ways, it seems to be defined by her relationship with her two sons, Pascal and Henri. The younger of the two has autism, and in many ways, there is a link drawn between An Tinh’s early inability to understand Canadian society as a foreigner with his inability to read and understand social situations. Both are outsiders, and An Tinh finds herself perhaps more protective of him because she understand what it is like to be shunned by the rest of the mainstream.

By the end of the novel, Thúy has found herself in a rhythm that I wish she had adopted the entire way through: one section talks about her life in Canada, while the next subverts this happy image with an flashback to Vietnam on a similar theme. I like the idea of juxtaposing these two lives, each with its own highs and lows, each complimenting the other in terms of happiness and sadness. I don’t have a problem with the tiny, fragmented narrative, but it jumps all over the place thematically, and if she had started doing this earlier, it would have given the novel a much needed sense of cohesion.

The use of first-person lends an air of intimacy and realism to this autobiographical novel, and Thúy has mentioned that this is a form of fictionalised memoir, based on her own experiences of coming to Canada as an immigrant. It’s a story that maybe isn’t heard often enough—the exodus to the West from Vietnam was a formative experience for the countries that embraced these refugees as much as it was for the refugees themselves. There’s an interesting tale to be told here, and Thúy adds to the narrative with her own tale.

It’s deeply unfair of me to compare this work to another, but I couldn’t help but be struck by how similar this is to Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic, another short novel detailing the immigrant story to North America, told in short, alternating chapters. I love that novel, and sadly, Ru didn’t quite reach the heights Otsuka’s work did. While Otsuka manages to tell the story of an entire generation with heart and with depth, Thúy’s novel just falls short of packing the emotional punch a story like this deserves. But, then, perhaps that’s the point—the life contained in Ru suggests a deeper emotional pain than could ever be described.

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