Tag Archives: love story

The Flamethrowers (2013) – Rachel KUSHNER

As I continue my (very selective) quest to check out this year’s Folio Prize shortlist, I find myself up against a wall of Yanks. The Flamethrowers is one of five American books on the eight-strong shortlist—hopefully not a sign of what is to come in this year’s Booker). In any case, I opened it hoping the rave reviews I’d read were reflective of the book itself.

Moving to New York to chase a boy and a dream, Reno finds herself caught up in a life like nothing she has ever seen before. Rapidly swept up by events beyond her control, she finds herself travelling the world in a time when political upheaval means no one is safe.

I wrote last week about another shortlisted novel that managed to balance substance and style in a way that felt compelling and real. Unfortunately, coming to The Flamethrowers was something of a let-down. It feels like it wants to be a big, important novel. Certainly it seems to be doing everything in its power to breakdown the stereotypes of books usually ascribed to female authors—there is no doubting this is big, bold and political in intent.

Ostensibly the largest problem with the novel, though, is a structural one—we jump around from place to place, leaving the reader confused and isolated. Instead of taking the time to engender an emotional connection between the reader and the protagonist, Kushner gets sidetracked by all the historical events and movements she is so clearly fascinated with. There’s no mistaking that many of these events are fascinating in their own right—the 70s was a time of huge political upheaval in both the US and Italy—but by trying to crowbar all of them into one novel has the effect of diluting the potency of each one. Instead of tying them all into one grand narrative, they come off as disparate and monotonous.

These kinds of widescreen novels can be saved if the common thread between narrative strands is strong. Unfortunately, the strand in The Flamethrowers—our protagonist, Reno—is not. She often comes across as nothing more than a tool to allow Kushner to explore the times and places that interest her, rather than a real person. Her seeming inability to react to anything that happens to her (and, to be fair, quite a lot does happen to her) opens a distance between character and writer that so often spells doom for a novel.

The Flamethrowers is not a bad book, but it does feel like a lot of what is wrong with contemporary literary fiction has been shoved into it: sweeping temporal and spatial settings that make it hard to get a grip on anyone or anything; characters that devolve into caricatures; and a tone that comes off as self-important. Check it out if you’re interested in 1970s Italian political history—otherwise, it’s a long, meandering ride.

Tagged , , , ,

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.

Tagged , , ,

Kokoro (1914) – NATSUME Sōseki

題名: こゝろ
著者: 夏目 漱石
出版年: 1914年

It’s been one hundred years since the publication of Kokoro, so it seems like as good a time as any to finally read it, and write down some thoughts about the most popular Japanese novel of all time.

It’s the summer holidays, and our narrator has gone to the seaside to escape the stifling heat of Tokyo (we’ve all been there). While there, he meets a middle-aged man he calls Sensei. The two of them form an odd friendship over their time in Kamakura, and it is continued when they both return to Tokyo. But friendship is a fragile thing, and as the two learn more about each other, past events threaten their relationship.

When our narrator meets Sensei for the first time, he is enamoured. Not in the modern sense, perhaps, but her certainly wants to get to know this older gentleman. He is about to finish university, and with his whole life in front of him, he sees Sensei as a potential mentor, as someone who can guide him to the right decisions. Reluctantly, Sensei begins to let the young man in. It quickly becomes clear, though, that there is a barrier to the their friendship, one our narrator is determined to break down, despite his ailing father moving ever closer to death.

And when our narrator is forced to choose between Sensei and his father, he makes a choice that will change Sensei’s life forever.

The second half—Sensei’s story—is the stronger of the two, and once you realise this was the first part Natsume wrote, it’s easy to see why. This is not an earth-shatteringly epic story, nor is it trying to place Japan in a modern context, as so many contemporary Japanese novelists try to do. This is a deeply human story, a story about the heart, and the completely illogical things it makes us do.

Desperate to make sure that this young man he has come to see as a friend does not make the same mistakes he did, Sensei writes him a letter. The letter is the key to understanding everything about him, and why he has wasted his life hidden away as a recluse, with only his wife to keep him company.

The story Sensei tells is a classic tale—boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, second boy arrives, second boy falls in love with girl. The two boys in question, Sensei and K, are friends, though not perhaps as close as we might imagine. Sensei feels a sense of obligation to K, who has been depressed and isolated as of late. Thinking he is doing the right thing by inviting him to live together, Sensei sets in motion a series of events that will shape the rest of his life.

This is a novel about the choices we make as young men, and the way these choices shape and influence our lives forever. We may have regrets, and we may try all we can to escape them, but as Natsume so elegantly draws, it simply cannot be done. Rather than try and escape the past, one must face it head-on.

Tagged , ,

The Swan Book (2013) – Alexis WRIGHT

It’s been six years since Alexis Wright’s last novel, the Miles Franklin Award-winning Carpentaria, a sprawling novel about the north of Australia. The Swan Book sees Wright return to similar themes, but in a setting quite unlike anything else ever seen in Australian literature.

The world has been ruined by climate change. In the north of Australia, one group of Indigenous Australians has been granted self-determination, and created a nation on the coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria. One young girl, Oblivia, lives in a shipwreck in the bay with an old white woman. One young boy, Warren Finch, has been anointed by the elders to be the vessel of their future. As their lives begin to intertwine in ways Oblivia could never have imagined, the fate of the Australian nation could be in their hands.

The Swan Book is postmodernism at its finest. Wright has no qualms about mixing high and low culture, or about placing European, Asian and Indigenous mythology on the same level. A quick glance at the quotation list at the end of the novel shows sources as varied as Auden, Wordsworth, Paterson, Goswami and Ch’i-chi. These quotes and references are weaved into the text seamlessly, never feeling forced or tokenistic. While mainstream Australian literature can often feel parochial and inward-focussed, Wright proves that Australian writers can mix with the best when it comes to internationality.

There can be no questioning, though, that this is Australian writing—indeed, Indigenous Australian writing. If you’ll forgive my getting theoretical here for a moment: postcolonial theory suggests that when colonised groups write in the language of the colonised, they are reclaiming the centre. They take back the power taken from them by the destruction of their language and culture by appropriating it for their own stories with their own language and words.

Wright has certainly reclaimed the centre in this novel. It is a blistering critique of almost every piece of legislation and policy aimed at Indigenous Australia in perhaps the entirety of Australian history. Nothing is safe from Wright’s keen view, from the Stolen Generation to the ultra-politically-correct language of the bureaucracy. Blame for the state of Indigenous Australia in this time is laid squarely at the feet of the white settlers. Make no mistake—this is at least as much political protest as it is piece of art.

And even though this novel is set in the future, where an Indigenous man, a man who is a world leader when it comes to minority rights and environmental policy, is one step away from becoming Australia’s Head of State, the sharp divide between Indigenous communities in outback Australia remains as stark as it is now. Wright does not see traditional power structures as a way for Indigenous Australian to solve their problems.

There is no one—in Australian or international literature—who writes quite like Alexis Wright does. After the success of Plains of Promise and Carpentaria, The Swan Book cements her claim to being one of the great writers of our time. Imagination is easy, but to be able to couple it with a socially and politically relevant argument to create a cohesive, enthralling and beautiful piece of art is a talent few others have.

Tagged , , , , ,

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013) – Mohsin HAMID

I went to a conference for emerging Asian Studies scholars at the end of last year (don’t ask me how I got an invite—I felt horribly out of place), and there were two buzz words/phrases that got pulled out at almost every lecture. The first was “Asian Century”, a reference to the Australian Government’s recent White Paper; the second was “rising Asia”, a term to describe the  many emerging and developing economies of South East and West Asia.

This obsession is not isolated to academia. In the past few months, two novels from prominent Asian authors have dealt with this idea of “rising Asia”, of people coming to terms with rapidly developing economies, and finding their place in this new paradigm. While Tash Aw’s excellent Five Star Billionaire took a somewhat dim view of the way of life brought about in developed Shanghai, Mohsin Hamid seems to revel in it.

Much like Aw’s book, Hamid’s novel is also based around the dodgy advice doled out by self-help books that seem to litter bookstores and airport shops all around the world. But Hamid’s novel is a little more biting, choosing to mercilessly mock these ridiculous books, by subverting the aphorisms they so love to dole out.

I can’t review Filthy Rich without mentioning some stylistic features. anyone who’s ever read a Choose Your Own Adventure Novel—where you get to be the protagonist!—will find themselves in familiar territory. The narrator is ostensibly Hamid, who is having a conversation with “you”, the reader. He tells you the story of your life, in sections corresponding to what we might see in a real-life how-to-get-rich guide, from the first step (“Move to the city”) to the last (“Have an exit strategy”). Each is a snippet of your life, an important moment in time as you move from poor village dweller to one of the richest people in the country, having control of many slightly shady drinking water deals with the local government.

Somehow, your life seems to be blessed. You manage to get all the opportunities everyone in rising Asia wants. You get into a good school, at the expense of your sister; you get into university, dabbling in religious extremism, but never committing; you start a dodgy water cleaning business, selling to enough businesses for you to hire staff; and by the end, you

What this novel does, though, is manage to transcend its cultural and temporal surroundings. It is not only the protagonist that has no name—the country we are in, even the city, are left unnamed. Though there are enough clues to suggest it is probably somewhere in the subcontinent, there is enough ambiguity that it is not a stretch of the imagination to see the action take place in south east Asia, or even Africa.

Drawing on the traditions of authors like Italo Calvino, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia has a depth of both style and substance, and should be a strong contender for this year’s batch of prizes. Along with the recent film version of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, it should mark Mohsin Hamid out as one of the rising stars of contemporary postmodern literature.

Tagged , , , ,

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.

Tagged , , , ,

Spring Snow (1968) – Yukio MISHIMA

Though I can name a whole pile of contemporary Japanese authors, my experience of the modern classics remains woefully underdone. I’m trying to work my way through a lot of stuff, and now I’ve read some of Mishima’s earlier works, I thought I’d make a start on the Sea of Fertility tetralogy – the set of novels that is supposed to best represent Mishima’s mission and thoughts as an author. I’ll eventually get around to reading the other three, but let’s start at the beginning, no?

Matsugae Kiyoaki and Ayakura Satoko are childhood friends from two very different families. Kiyoaki’s father is part of the new moneyed classes of Taiso Japan, while Satoko is the last in the long line of the Ayakura family. Kiyoaki is disturbed one say when Satoko asks him what he would do if she were to no longer exist. This one question awakens subconscious feelings in Kiyoaki that will bring Satoko and him into a relationship that could have far reaching consequences for the nation of Japan itself.

I’m hardly a Mishima expert, but there does seem to be a distillation of themes around which Mishima had been working for his earlier career. The “fall” of the modern Japanese nobility into a state of being where style was more important than substance; beautiful men doing stupid things; stupid women doing beautiful things; the constant quest for aesthetic perfection – the only thing missing from Spring Snow is the interaction with gay themes that marked his early work, such as Forbidden Colours.

Of course, as with all of Mishima’s protagonists, Kiyoaki isn’t the nicest guy on the block. Young and arrogant, he seems completely oblivious to the fact that he is in love with Satoko – indeed, he finds the whole idea repulsive – until she is engaged to someone else, and all of a sudden, he must have her. At first, his realisation and declaration of love for her seems strange and petty, as though the prince had been given a toy from Kiyoaki, who suddenly realised he wanted it back simply because someone else had it. But there is a recognisable through line from beginning to end – as with many annoying teenagers, Kiyoaki’s mind games and proclamations of hatred towards Satoko are simply masking his true feelings, perhaps for fear of being rejected by a woman.

There’s no getting around the fact that Mishima is a huge misogynist. But in Spring Snow, Satako seems to be given a little more agency than female characters in some of his other works. She had made it clear to Kiyoaki well before her engagement to the prince that she was willing to marry him, though he made it pretty clear he wanted nothing to do with it. When Kiyoaki finally gets his act together, she is willing to risk everything to have a sexual affair with him, despite being engaged to a member of the royal family. When the shit inevitably hits the fan, she makes the decision to become a nun, the shame of being discovered to have had an abortion of a child that is not the prince’s too much to bear. The ruined woman running away from the world for fear of judgement is a fairly common trope in all fiction, and Mishima makes these final scenes all the more intense with the ceremonial shaving of Satoko’s head described in great detail.

A quick note on the royal family at the centre of this novel. Just like many crazy left-leaning liberals, I find it difficult to wrap my head around the notion of royalty – particularly when it’s based on male primogeniture, as it is in Japan. But it’s important to remember that this is set in a part of Japan’s history when the Emperor was considered a living god. The Meiji Emperor had died only a few years earlier, so the new Taisho Emperor was still new to the throne, though there was no question of who or what he was. Any slight against the royal family – such as, say, a sexual dalliance with the fiancée of a major cousin of the emperor – was not a good look for anyone, particularly the participating woman.

I haven’t mentioned Honda Shigekuni – the character that appears in all for novels in the cycle – mainly because he plays a fairly minor role in the whole thing. As Kiyoaki’s confidant, he chooses not to get involved in the whole affair, preferring to leave the family drama to other people. I’m curious to know if he plays a more active role in later novels, or if he remains a passive observer of twentieth century Japan.

Spring Snow is a small novel. Though it is clear Mishima wants to talk about big things, by concentrating his focus almost exclusively on one aristocratic couple, he manages to do so effectively. Despite having none of the anger of his earlier novels, the disappointment he feels for Japan is keenly felt in his portrayal of aristocratic families struggling to deal with circumstances beyond their control, for the greater good of the Japanese Empire.

Tagged , , , ,

Hotel Iris (1996) – Yoko OGAWA

I read Ogawa’s beautiful short novel, The Housekeeper and the Professor, last year, and have been passively searching for her other work since. Written almost ten years before that novel, which made her (slightly) famous outside of Japan, this return to her earlier work stands in sharp contrast to the elegiac, restrained beauty which was so alluring in Professor. Hotel Iris is a brutal, shocking story of sexual desire, pent up energy, and family rebellion.

When a prostitute storms out of one of the rooms at the Hotel Iris, run by Mari’s controlling mother, Mari cannot help but be intrigued by the seemingly innocuous man that follows her out of the room. And so begins a relationship which must be kept secret from the rest of the town, for fear of being caught. As Mari adjusts to her new life of sneaking around town, and defying her mother, she remains blissfully unaware of the fact that this man is leading her down a dark and dangerous path.

Mari’s life strikes me as being all too typical in the post-bubble world of the Japanese countryside – and indeed, in other parts of the world, where urban drift is becoming harder and harder to ignore. Young people stuck in country towns with no dreams and no aspirations, having resigned themselves to a boring life spent looking after the family hotel, or working in the local restaurant until they get married and have children of their own – these are the people Mari seems to be modelled after. This lifestyle is exacerbated by her father’s death, the parent who seemed most  comfortable around her, and the fact that her mother is, shall we say, a bit unhinged. Her inability to help her own daughter with anything, seeing her almost as just another member of the hotel staff, no doubt contributes to Mari’s eventual sexual awakening, and subsequent defilling, in perhaps the most literal sense.

There is a small group of novels that deal with sexuality, and highlight the fact that, often, even if two people are consenting, sex is not necessarily all dimmed lights and romantic whisperings. Loaded and Praise are two that spring to mind – Hotel Iris is the other. Right from the get go, with the slightly overdramatic throwing out of the translator by his prostitute, there is a sense of sexual danger surrounding him, despite his less than glamorous looks. The first thought when you hear of a prostitute throwing out a customer is, “Wow – if not even she will do it, what on Earth could he possibly have wanted?” Which is, of course, playing into society’s views on prostitution and what not (let’s not forget – prostitutes are people, too, and have standards), but it’s the suggestion of such depravity on his behalf that sticks with you. They say it’s the quiet ones who are always the screamers in the bedroom, and though the translator is not necessarily quiet, his middle-aged lonely academic widower routine certainly hides the fact that he gets up to weird shit in the bedroom.

It seems strange, then, that these two people – a sexually adventurous middle-aged translator, and a young girl stuck in whoop whoop – should come together and strike up something of a friendship, though that is not the right word. Neither is relationship, though, which implies a sense of emotional intimacy between the two parties, which is not something that ever shines through here. Perhaps I have something of an idealised view of relationships, in which, for the most part, the two parties are essentially on equal footing when it comes to power and decision-making. That is most certainly not the case here – not only is the translator old enough to be Mari’s grandfather, it is clear that he has a vicious temper, and when he finally gets her into bed, it is unleashed with terrifying force.

I remain baffled, though, as to why this story needed to be told. It’s well written, but I’m not sure what the message is. What am I supposed to feel about this relationship? Certainly, I feel very uncomfortable. There are so many scenes that veer very, very close to what my law student friends would probably term “rape,” and yet Mari seems to go along with it willingly, at least physically. Clearly this is an unhealthy relationship, but it seems to stem not from the fact that they have violent, inventive S&M sex, but from the fact that he holds all the power – from the fact that he is more intelligent, older, and a man with a mysterious past. I don’t want to use the term “mind rape,” because this isn’t 1960s Star Trek, but there is a feeling that Mari is so out of her depth, she can’t see just how wrong the entire situation is.

If nothing else, Hotel Iris highlights the range Yoko Ogawa is capable of. Any author who can swing between an almost twee novel about an amnesiac professor, to a novel about some really weird bedroom obsessions, should be applauded for range. I’m intrigued to know which of the two extremes is more “typical” of her work – or is there a third option I just haven’t seen yet?

Tagged , ,

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.

Tagged , , , ,

The Lake (2005) – Banana YOSHIMOTO

This is my first proper dip into the longlist of this year’s Man Asian Literary Prize – that’s quite exciting, isn’t it? I read Yoshimoto’s Kitchen a long, long time ago, and to be fair, the thing that sticks out most about it in my mind is still her ridiculous penname. She’s quite a prolific writer, and has won an unholy number of awards in Japan for her work. Arguably most interesting, though, is that she is one of a small number of both popularly and critically well received female Japanese authors on the contemporary scene.

When Chihiro’s newly acquired sort-of-boyfriend, Nakajima, asks her to accompany him to a lake in the countryside, she is initially unsure. He is a broken man, and she is a broken woman – both have lost at least one parent, and the effects of this is that the two of them look to the other for comfort. She knows, though, he is hiding something. When this secret is finally revealed, it is up to Chihiro to decide what to do.

First things first – not a lot happens here. Yoshimoto is far more concerned with character studies and development than any kind of plot machinations. Chihiro is dealing with the recent death of her mother, and trying to work out what this means for her relationship with her father, who never legally recognised her. Perhaps this has more resonance in a Japanese context, due to their ridiculous citizenship laws, but it’s an interesting dynamic, and Chihiro seems to have resigned herself to having a somewhat distant relationship with a man who is biologically her father, but emotionally, maybe not so much.

But out of our two main characters, it is Nakajima that is the most complexly fascinating. He is at once deeply reserved emotionally and needy. His playing house with Chihiro when they move in together is a nice role reversal from that traditional Confucian male/female gender roles one is likely to see in mainstream Japan. While he clearly enjoys living with Chihiro, and relying on her for emotional support, his lack of desire to do anything in the boudoir points to some kind of clearly messed up childhood. The quest to understand Nakajima is the ostensible plot of the novel, and Chihiro’s own confusion about Nakajima are shared with the reader, forcing us to continue reading in order to find out what that murky past is.

Said secret is not revealed until about two thirds of the way through, though the blurb on my edition makes a less than subtle hint towards what it might be (clearly they were struggling to describe the almost non-existent plot). The eponymous lake has a lot to do with it, though. When Nakajima takes Chihiro out to this lake (complete with some beautiful imagery of a lake shrouded in mist, the only thing visible, a vibrant torii – lovely stuff), he introduces her to two friends, also clearly not a part of mainstream Japan. Mino, and his sister, Chii, live in a shack on the edge of a lake. Mino spends his time looking after Chii, who is desperately unwell, and has trouble talking, or indeed, even leaving her bed.

Nakajima’s relationship with these two is left unexplained for a long time, and Chihiro herself goes to visit them by herself to try and understand just what is going. There is some weird magical realist stuff going in the shack, with Mino claiming he can read his sister’s mind, since she herself cannot communicate with other people. Whether or not this ability is real or imagined is a question Yoshimoto is happy to throw open to her readers. I’m not sure it’s totally necessary, though it’s a nice touch of slight of hand- I thought we were going one way, and I was happy with where I thought we were going, but it all kind of fizzled out once the real twist came around.

This novel(la) is concerned with the periphery, the gaps that people face in their lives. Yoshimoto has gifted us with characters that have been forced to find comfort in each other, because the traditional constructs of Japanese society have failed them. The Lake is not, though, a blistering critique of said society – there is, instead, a positive note in the ending, and there is an understanding that, even on the periphery, stumbling upon other people to help you out can only be a good thing.

Tagged , , ,