Tag Archives: China

On Such a Full Sea (2014) – Chang-rae LEE

Chang-rae Lee chaired the judging panel for the Man Asian Literary Prize a few years ago, and since then, I’ve been meaning to get around to reading some of his work. So walking into the bookstore the other day and seeing his new sci-fi novel staring at me was a sign.

In the future, nation-states are no longer the norm. Ethnic groups have spread out, and it is now more common to see Chinese in America than Caucasians. One such young woman, Fan, has been trained from a young age to be a diver, to farm the fish the one percent eat. But when her boyfriend goes missing, she starts a quest that will change her life.

This isn’t a novel about a dystopian future (the lower classes are almost never seen, only described in hushed tones) so much as a novel about current trends in social mobility. While the best kind of sci-if takes elements of contemporary society and moulds them into a possible future, Lee essentially asks what it would be like if global society simply continued as it were, preserved in some static bubble, the only thing changing the technology and pop culture we consume.

It’s unsettling to read about the future of the upper class as living in a society where sushi bars and wood-fired pizza are the pinnacle of the culinary experience. Isn’t this where we are now? It is jarring that a novel so concerned about gently mocking the upper classes of the West and their obsession with organic food and cleanliness should be set in the future. It seems like something of a missed opportunity—you could transplant the action into contemporary America, and end up with a piece that carries more weight and emotional punch.

Fan self is little more than a cipher through which Lee can present his ideas. Her hero’s journey, such as it is, is to find her boyfriend, who left their safe, middle-class town one day and never came back. The narration makes it clear that Fan is not a woman of action: “the funny thing about the tale of Fan is that much of what happened to her happened to her”. Though we are repeatedly told that this woman, and her quest to find her one true love, sparked a rebellion movement in an otherwise perfect town, there is no suggestion that . Which would be fine if Lee presented her as an imperfect woman whose influence is a side-effect of her personal journey, but the reader never gets a sense that this is what’s happening. Instead, the disconnect between what the town venerates her for (running away) and what happens next (not much) is so great, one cannot help but feel disappointed as her tale unfolds.

Instead, her road trip allows Lee to present different facets of this new world, a world that, we are reminded again and again, is highly stratified. And yet, there is movement. For all the talk of being three vastly different communities, almost all the secondary characters we meet have been through some upheaval of their own.This is most obvious in the final act, when Fan is taken in by a man and his family who are about to make millions from a medical breakthrough. But Oliver has a secret, and the reveal will make your eyes roll from sheer narrative convenience. If you want people to believe that this future is bad, you need to show it.

I don’t want every dystopian future to be like The Hunger Games in its brutality and moral ambiguity. But if a writer chooses this genre, he or she is doing it for a political purpose—to highlight current issues that need to be changed. Though Lee’s On Such a Full Sea engages with contemporary issues, he doesn’t use the genre to its full effect, leaving readers wondering if the whole thing wouldn’t have been better off in another setting.

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Five Star Billionaire (2013) – Tash AW

Tan Twan Eng’s winning of last year’s Man Asian Literary Prize hopefully went some way to recognising that there is a huge output of English language literature coming out of South East Asia, including Malaysia. Tash Aw is another Malaysian author who has made a splash in recent years, and for his third novel, he moves away from historial fiction about Malaysia to the current state of the Chinese Malaysian diaspora returning to China to find wealth.

Five Star Billionaire is the story of four young Malaysians who have come to China to hit the jackpot. But life isn’t easy in the biggest city in the world, when 23 million other people want exactly the same thing. More than ever, it is the small connections, the fragile relationships we have with other people, that become important in a city where everyone is out to get everyone else.

Shanghai’s international pull is well documented here. All four (five, even) main characters have come from Malaysia, Aw’s homeland. They have come because, for them, Shanghai is the Mecca of Asian development. It is the place where people come to get rich beyond their wildest dreams. It is a reminder to all of us in the West that China really has become the ideal for so many people in all of developing Asia.

Though each character is Malaysian, and has come to China to find success, it is a credit to Aw that they are all here for different reasons, and have vastly different family backgrounds. Justin is the heir to a huge family real estate conglomerate that has been successful since colonial times. Gary has been plucked from village obscurity to become a successful M-Pop (is that a thing?). Phoebe represents the thousands (millions?) of factory girls who flow across the borders into China to find wealth. And Yinghui is the end of Phoebe’s journey—a successful business woman who is constantly told that she must now find a man.

Just as we spoke last week about Mo Yan’s dim view on the rapid development of rural China, we now get Tash Aw’s rather depressing view of contemporary, already-developed urban Shanghai. It is a city that will take you in, chew you up and spit you out without a thought for your wellbeing. It is a place where everyone is out to make a buck, no matter the consequences for the people around them. Gary and Justin are the first to find this out the hard way—Justin’s family business goes bankrupt, forcing him to redefine who he is. Gary’s temper gets the better of him one night in a bar, and all of a sudden, he loses the millions of adoring but fickle teenage adorers.

There is a sense of impermanence that pervades all four narrative strands. Every time a character is successful, we are obliged to feel happy for them, because they are, for the most part, nice people. But so often it feels like a hollow victory—we know from past experiences that the fall is always harder than the ascent, and can happen when you are least expecting it.

It seems ironic, then, that the characters themselves seem so blithely unaware of the world in which they live. The best example of this is Yinghui’s story, which is perhaps the most heartbreaking of all the narrative strands. Despite her business acumen, she remains sweetly naïve about the lengths people will go to in order to make money.

I haven’t read Tash Aw’s debut novel, The Harmony Silk Factory, so I can’t comment on whether he is getting better or worse with time. If nothing else, Five Star Billionaire marks Tash Aw as a writer who has his finger on the pulse. This is as modern a novel about developing Asia you are likely to find. From the sleazy chatrooms to the exploited illegal immigrants, from the destruction of old heritage buildings to the glittering new skyscrapers, everything you need to know about rising Asia is here.

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Pow! (2003) – MO Yan

Mo Yan’s winning of the Nobel Prize probably couldn’t have come at a better time for Seagull Books, who released this Mo novel several weeks after the award was announced. This was good for them for a variety of reasons, I imagine, not least because they are a university press, so they were always going to have trouble competing in terms of marketing and promotion. That, (and I say this as a recovering bookseller), and the fact that this novel would be super difficult to hand-sell.

The first, most blindingly obvious thing, about this novel is the meat. There is so much talk about meat, about eating meat, about cooking meat, about consuming meat, it can get quite overwhelming at times. Don’t get me wrong—I’m no vegetarian—but Mo really hammers home this obsession with meat that has taken over Slaughterhouse Village and Luo Xiaotong.

Obviously we can’t take the novel at face value. The whole concept is so ridiculous, we have to look further, dig deeper in the symbolism behind the magical realism at work here. Fortunately, it is not that hard to make the leap Mo wants us to make. The meat, and the obsession behind it, can be seen as a symbol of modern, developing China, and the desire for more wealth and more material gains. It is because of the meat, and the meat industry that has sprung up in Slaughterhouse Village, that people are becoming rich. And, of course, with people being the way they are, as soon as they get some meat, they want more and more and more.

At the centre of this obsession lies Luo Xiaotong, a young boy whose own obsession with eating meat leads him to great fame and wealth. Comparisons have been made to Gunter Grass’ absurdist masterpiece The Tin Drum. The comparisons are apt. Despite only being 12 years old, Xiaotong somehow manages to be given control of the entire meat packing plant, because he is able to consume vast quantities of meat (his skills are tested in several meat eating competitions with grown men)

Much of the horrific novel is horrific, not necessarily in a visceral sense, but in a human sense. Tagged on to this satirical view of development in China is the story of Luo Xiaotong’s family, and the fractious relationship between his mother, his father and his younger half-sister. In many places, it is quite touching, and Mo really goes to town on those fathers that leave young families simply for the sake of their own happiness.

Not that there aren’t scenes that won’t make your stomach turn. One in particular left me feeling unwell: the graphic description of the way in which the new meat-packaging plant, built to accommodate larger demand for exotic meat, pumps water not into dead meat, but into live animals, so it can be said they are not filling their meat with water to trick customers. Of course, the flip side

You’ll note I’ve avoided mentioning the elephant in the room that seems to come saddled with every Mo Yan review: that, because he is a member of the CCP, he can’t possibly be a good writer. I don’t buy that, so I’m moving swiftly on. Dylan Suher has an interesting article about it published in Asymptote here.

There is no escaping the fact that Pow! is bizarre. It is big, bold, and often confusing. But it is quite unlike any other Chinese fiction I’ve ever read. He might not be writing the biting social commentary we have all come to expect from contemporary Chinese literature, but Mo Yan has a gift that is undeniable.

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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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Sour Sweet (1982) – Timothy MO

When Timothy Mo’s new book, Pure, came out last year, I was intrigued by its premise. Doing some more research on him, I discovered that he had actually been shortlisted for the Man Booker several times in the 80s, and yet none of his books are still available through a major publisher. All of his stuff is, however, available through his own publishing company, Paddleless Press. So when I found a few Vintage paperbacks of these novels at a recent second-hand book fair, I snapped them up.

The Chen family have just arrived in London. Eager to make a new life—and money—in their new homeland. Lily and Chen, along with their new son, Man Kee, and Lily’s older sister, Mui, live together. Though Chen works at an inner-city restaurant, he has bigger plans, and turns to an unfortunate source of income to make sure his dreams do come true.

I love this family. I love the husband and wife, I love the slightly clingy sister, I love the son with the big son. I love that they are comically dysfunctional, just like every other family in existence. I love that they are the ones who find the English confusing and ridiculous, with their crazy traditions like Christmas. I love that, at the heart of this novel, is an important story to be told, a story that chronicles the journey of first-generation Asian immigrants moving from the colonies to the motherland.

Their journey is, by now, familiar to us all – arguably more so to us Australians. We live in a country where the two largest countries of origin for immigrants are China and India. Asian faces are a part of the Australian experience. So it’s easy to read this book thirty years later and recognise the struggles of first-generation Asian immigrants in a predominately Anglo society.

It’s interesting to look at the way in which the immigrant and non-immigrant halves of London live in this context. When Lily finally sends her son to school, she is worried that he is spending too much time playing and having fun, and not learning things the proper, Chinese way. So she sends him to Chinese school on weekends, so he can have a proper, Chinese education. (This still happens today, of course. Many of my friends went to Chinese school on the weekend.)

Outside these obvious desires to see the next generation of Chinese grow up to have some grounding in Chinese traditions, Lily also finds other, non-Chinese, immigrant groups to be somehow intrinsically nicer than white English people. Perhaps she feels them all to be in the same boat, stuck in a country that is unfamiliar, yet unwilling to leave, because this is where they have chosen to make their new life.

The family is stubborn in its refusal to deal with people outside the family unit, though when they do, it is in exceptional circumstances. Chen, for example, seeks out the Triad for money to buy a house and restaurant so his family can escape the city, while the sisters seek out a friend, Mrs Law, when they need female advice. This relationship becomes particularly important about halfway through the novel when it turns out Mui is pregnant with an illegitimate child that needs to be taken care of. Though we never find out who the father is, I wonder if it is Chen—the two have secret conversations that Lily finds worrying, and are quiet whenever she is around. Or, I’m reading way too much into it.

One of the strengths of this novel is its tone. Mo keeps it fairly light and comical, despite the serious nature of the issues he tackles.  The tension between the husband and wife becomes a comical war of attrition with each side trying to outsmart the other without it being obvious. Ironically, of course, both end up getting what they want, but it takes the wife doing everything she can for this to happen. The tension, too, between the two sisters is deftly turned into a black comedy.

Perhaps the largest comedy fodder, though, is situational. Scenes of the husband learning to drive and failing miserably are hilarious, and the fact that the wife becomes even more adept at driving than he could ever imagine is even funnier, particularly considering the kinds of racial and gender stereotypes to which Asian lady drivers are subject. Funny, too, is the whole political structure of the Chinese restaurant in which Chen first works. The waiters know that the English are more likely to tip, but they can’t believe the kind of food they have to serve to them: sweet and sour pork, chicken with cashews—these are not foods that find themselves on everyday Chinese tables.

This is not to say, though, that Mo reaches for Jacobson style farcical comedy. There are moments of genuine heartbreak, especially when the Triad finally catches up with the husband, culminating in a surprisingly down-beat, and understated finale, in which Lily and Mui never actually find out what happened to their husband/brother-in-law.

I wonder whether excising a large portion of the Triad plotline would make the novel a lot better. Mo breaks up his solid story of a family immigrating to England from Hong Kong with occasional vignettes into Triad meetings where upper-level gangsters talk about the cocaine trade into England from all over the world, and while these things are interesting, they take away somewhat from the main tale Mo is trying to tell. I get that, structurally, he needs to introduce the Triads so he can get his pay-off at the end, but it takes focus away from the main narrative thread, not just in terms of content, but in tone, too.

On a purely personal note, too, Mo refers to the members of the Triad by using the meanings of the characters in which their Chinese names are written, something that has always bugged me. We don’t call Tokyo “Eastern Capital”, or Beijing “Northern Capital”—it sounds dumb. Who knows, maybe it was the way to do it at the time.

Sour Sweet is not a spectacular book, but it is certainly not a bad one. If nothing else, it fills a gap in the British immigrant experience, which so often explores other groups, including those from the subcontinent and from Africa. But it fill it admirably, pulling back from the po-faced, serious semi-autobiographical retellings of immigrant experiences. This does not undermine the serious issues faced by Hong Kongers coming to England, but it places the often comic misunderstandings between two cultures at the forefront.

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Narcopolis (2012) – Jeet THAYIL

I should start by giving full credit to Mark from Eleutherophobia for pointing me in the direction of Narcopolis. Jeet Thayil is a well-respected Indian poet, whose own history with drug abuse seems to have inspired this, his debut novel. I don’t read a great number of drug novels, for no other reason that it’s not the 1960s anymore, and people don’t seen to write that many? Or maybe I’m just not looking hard enough.

In the chandu khanas of Shuklaji Street, Mumbai, opium is the drug of choice. Among the hundreds of dens offering people a good time is one belonging to Rashid, where our story takes place. As we follow the lives of his employees and his clients, we uncover a part of Indian history that many people would like to forget – a time when opium was king and where prostitution was the past time de jour. As time passes, though, other drugs begin to make a move, and everything changes.

There’s a danger, I think, when you write a drug novel that you go too far in trying to make the whole thing kind of like a trip. I worry that Thayil has gone too far in that direction for Narcopolis to have a really punchy effect on the reader. One kind of meanders through some scenes that seem to have little to do with each other, and then all of a sudden, we’re thirty years on, at the end of our journey. Maybe this isn’t just a drug novel problem – I wonder if Thayil’s history as a poet meant he spent more time crafting the (admittedly gorgeous) language at the expense of a clear through line.

Bonus points, though, to Thayil’s evocation of Dimple as a protagonist, though. She is a hijra, a man who has become a woman, and the gender politics at play whenever anyone new encounters her are subtly played, but (I can only imagine) well-evoked. It must be tiring to be asked whether or not one’s genitals are still intact, and Dimple manages to make the best of many bad situations. Though we are introduced to a narrator early on, it is Dimple who quickly takes over the story, becoming out eyes and ears in a world where morality is not quite what we might expect. She has ideas above her station, and her attempts to educate herself in both philosophy and the ENglish language are an endearing reminder as to the dire situation in which all these people find themselves.

It is, as ever, a depressing evocation of a part of India that so many writers seem willing to ignore. It is not hard to read only a few pages, and already feel like you need a bath or shower, the grime from the dirty crack dens and seedy men sleeping with prostitutes somehow coming off the page and into your own life. These are characters that, despite probably being good people, have been sucked into a world where they can do nothing but take drugs and fall into habits that die hard.

There is almost some redemption for some of these people near the end – people find their way into rehab, but it never sticks. One character remarks that the choice between rehab and prison is like a choice between syphilis and gonorrhoea. It’s a charming simile, but it really highlights just how much these characters are addicted to these damaging drugs. There doesn’t seem to be any light at the end of the tunnel.

A shift in tone near the end sees a particularly poignant scene. We have moved into the twenty first century, an India I find easier to recognise, full of young professionals trying to make more and more money, trying to get rich quick. They have assembled at a party in a fancy skyscraper in their fancy suits and dresses, and they are all getting higher than the Empire State in the bathroom on cocaine, MDMA and ecstasy. Thayil show us that drugs are never going away – they will simply change and evolve with time, and for some people, they will always be attractive, no matter how much they get fucked by them.

In the end, Narcopolis is less than the sum of its many promising parts. The beginning monologue is blisteringly good, and though Thayil’s style is nice, the plot loses some of its way through the middle of the novel. The end returns to the promise of the initial pages, but it ends up being too little too late. A good, but not great, debut from a poet who has the potential to marry a beautiful prose style with some deeply unbeautiful subject matter.

I also heartily approve of the Colin Hay cameo.

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River of Smoke (2011) – Amitav GHOSH

I was both excited and annoyed when I found this novel on the longlist of the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize. Excited, because I had wanted to read it long before its appearance, but annoyed, because I had planned on waiting until the third in the Ibis trilogy – of which River of Smoke is the second, and Sea of Poppies is the first – had been released, so I could do them all in one go. So it was with some trepidation that I began this novel, hoping I wasn’t ruining a rather anticipated reading experience.

Coming in as someone who has not read Sea of Poppies, it was somewhat dismaying to read the opening sections, which appeared to deal with the events of that novel. Fortunately, that sense of displacement doesn’t last long, and Ghosh pushes us head first into what is the bulk of the novel: the degradation of the relationship between the British and Chinese Empires, the beginning of the First Opium War, and the eventual creation of Hong Kong as a British outpost in South East Asia. And once Ghosh gets the story proper going, though – wow. Perhaps the thing that struck me most about the entire endeavour was that is was clear he has done a vast amount of research into this time period, with even the most basic details of everyday life for this group of foreigners living in Canton clearly and vividly presented.

Ghosh provides an exhaustive list of references at the end, but it is his gift that, apart from one or two passages, you do not feel like you are reading a dry history textbook about the period. He really makes each and every character come alive, and in this instance, I am including Canton as a character. There is a real sense of place here, from the sights and sounds of the bustling boats moored to the docks, to the food consumed at every meal. It is clear Ghosh is something of a gourmand, because he really does go to great pains to make you want to eat the meals provided.

Canton, too, is a place to be celebrated. A truly international trading city, the melting pot of ethnicities who make their living in the shipping industry provide a huge cast of characters and caricatures from which Ghosh can draw. Here are the early signs of globalisation, or internationalisation at work – a combination of early free trade capitalists, bringing their business to an Asian nation that is still unwilling to make full concessions to the new ways they are being strongly encouraged to adopt. It could be anywhere in Asia in the 21st century, but here it is, a good 170 years early. The only mutually understood language by all of these people is a kind of Creole, formed out of the marriage between Cantonese and English, and it is a testament to Ghosh that he not only uses this for huge chunks of dialogue, but makes it easy for his audience to understand.

Our two main characters – Bahram and Neel – are Indians caught up in the opium trade. Bhram is the master of a company that ships opium into China, and Neel is his newly acquired assistant. Between the two of them, we are allowed a glimpse into the ways in which foreigners (by which I mean, the British Empire and the Americans) were conducting the opium trade. On the one hand, they were fully aware of the fact that opium was not a Good Thing, having banned the stuff in their own lands, but they were more than willing to exploit the Chinese market, and sell it there, despite the trade restrictions. I love the indignation of everyone – including Bahram – when the Chinese do an about face, and tell them that, actually, those restrictions will be enforced, and if you don’t comply, heads will roll. Literally. There’s a nice poetic justice to it, though as it turns out, it is not perhaps the best news for Bahram, who is already deep in debt with his investors in India.

I don’t know if Paulette features heavily in the first novel, but in River of Smoke, she seems little more than an excuse for Ghosh to write the letters of Robin Chinnery. I am not really complaining, because these letters are absolutely brilliant, but it does mean Paulette does get sidelined fairly early on in the action. From her promising start as a cross-dressing botanist, to her burgeoning friendship with Fitcher Penrose, a charmingly gruff Scottish botanist, she very quickly disappears off the page, and her name is reduced to nothing more than a destination for Robin’s letters.

But those letters – oh, what a gift they are. There is nowhere else in the novel that highlights the kind of mastery Ghosh has over the English language. Through language alone, he manages to conjur up a (hilariously) camp artist from the 1830s, whose love of men is at once flamboyant and tragic. His quest to find Paulette’s golden camellia sends him on a wild adventure around Canton, meeting a wide variety of people outside of the merchant houses that form the somewhat claustrophobic setting of the other two narrative strands. It also provides him with several potential “Friends”, as he so coyly calls them, and his retellings of his attempts to woo them actually made me laugh out loud on several occasions.

There’s no point in me banging on about how wonderful this novel is any more. Suffice it to say, I’m sold on the Ibis trilogy. I’m sad that I didn’t read them in order, but I will now go out and find Sea of Poppies (once John Murray have given it a better cover), and devour that, too. And I have now joined the long list of people eagerly anticipating the final volume of the trilogy, whenever that may arrive. Needless to say, I hope (and suspect) River of Smoke will make its way onto this year’s Man Asian Literary Prize shortlist.

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Dream of Ding Village (2005) – YAN Lianke

I’m posting this today, as opposed to a usual Tuesday post, because today is World AIDS Day.

It’s funny that most of the literature translated from Chinese for the West is promoted as being banned in China, as though reading something banned by a dictatorship is some kind of protest, some kind of “Fuck you” to the Chinese government. Fortunately, the phrase “banned in China” is not plastered across this novel, which bodes well for me. Perhaps Yan has written a novel that stands on its own two feet, a novel that doesn’t have to rely on the fact that it has upset the easily offended General Administration of Press and Publication to sell some copies.

A young boy, recently deceased, recounts to us the tale of his village in Henan Province, China, where there has been an unfortunate outbreak of AIDS. He tells us of his surviving family members, as well as the other villagers, and how they deal with the way this horrific incident occurred, and how they must deal with it every day for the rest of their lives. From his young Uncle who has fallen in love with the wrong woman; to his father, who has dreams of making it big in the Party; to his Grandpa, who cannot keep up; this is a novel of people under pressure.

There’s so much going on in Dream of Ding Village that it’s hard to know where to start. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a novel so multi-layered, so multi-faceted, so deep. But perhaps the most disturbing realisation arising from this novel is the fact that it is based on a true incident – AIDS spreading through Henan Province due to some horrifically lack standards when it came to blood donation, particularly since it was a cash cow for poor people looking to make some quick and easy money. Why wouldn’t you trust a government agency looking to give you money simply for the occasional collection of blood, which is easily replaceable?

AIDS looms large in this novel, though it is only mentioned by its proper name a handful of times. The physical manifestations of “the fever” are viscerally and vividly described by Yan, and the way in which it wreaks havoc upon the human body has never been more clear in my own mind. The descriptions of tired, battered, pustule-filled bodies throughout the book again and again invite you to realise just how terrible this disease truly is. There are some sex scenes that are deeply uncomfortable, probably more so for those taking part than the reader, and it is in scenes like this, where the physicality of the human body is so intimately and clearly expressed, that you realise just what a truly great writer Yan is.

Arguably the greatest strength of Dream of Ding Village is that, tonally, it manages to remain light, and in some places, humorous. This is not to say Yan does not take his subject matter seriously – but I think it would be easy for a novelist to simply look at the theme, and simply say “I’m going to write the most depressing novel ever.” It is to Yan’s credit that he manages to find the humanity in the victims of these horrible circumstances, and it is the human moments that make this novel what it is. Whether it be two people realising they love each other, despite being fully aware they have only months to live; or an old man wandering the school he has looked after for so many years,

The allegorical nature of the novel needs to be addressed, too. This is not just a novel about AIDS, and the way people deal with such a brutal disease. This is a damning indictment of the shift in modern Chinese society, and the way people are now more willing than ever to do whatever it takes to make a buck, and to get rich quick. This is nowhere more clear than in the relationship between Grandpa and Ding Hui, the narrator’s father. It’s hard not to hate Ding Hui – his seemingly inability to see beyond his own bank balance and ambition, and realise that he is hurting the people around him – not just emotionally, but physically, too. He eats up the scenery each and every time he’s on the page, and every time he manages to weasel some more blood out of a desperate, unsuspecting friend, you want to hate him even more.

It would be easy to dismiss Yan as a traditionalist with dim views of capitalism, but I’m not so sure. Ding Hui can just as easily be read as a symbol of the faceless members of the Chinese bureaucracy, and their inability to see humanity in the face of the rules. With every glimmer of hope Hui provides, he manages to take away almost twice as much with the end result, and the closing sections, where he becomes the ultimate sell-out, are heart-breaking. I won’t spoil it, but suffice to say, it highlights that a ghost narrator is not just a gimmick. It’s interesting to note that Yan himself professes to self-censorship when writing his novels, though as it turns out, even with that extra step, his satirical take on the blinkered view taken by bureaucracy about the lives of people living in country China is less than kind.

There’s no one word or phrase that can define this novel: love story, political satire, clash of cultures – it’s all happening here. Yan has proved himself as a great novelist, full of ideas and themes that cry out to be discussed. His ability to create true, human characters amongst all this, though, is perhaps his greatest gift. Because without a human face, incidents such as this would be confined to the rubbish bin of history, doomed to be forgotten.

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