Monday, August 28, 2017

Brunei: Written in Black, by K H Lim

It seemed as if the choices for Brunei were limited to one of two books: Four Kings, by Christopher Sun, or The Forlorn Adventure, a sci fi novel by Amir Falique. Four Kings is a murder mystery set in France - besides the fact that I have not seen a good review of it, neither novel seemed likely to enlighten me much about life in Brunei.

Then I stumbled on a reference to K H Lim's Written in Black, which seemed much more like what I was looking for. The narrator of this novel is ten year old Jonathan Lee, who is attending the funeral of his "Ah Kong" (grandfather). Jonathan's mother had left for Australia six months previously. His elder brother Michael has been kicked out of the house and has joined a rock band. Jonathan is missing his mother and when he finds out from his cousin Kevin, that she has been in touch with Michael by telephone, he escapes the funeral (a traditional Chinese funeral lasting several days) in an empty coffin in the back of a truck. His quest to find his brother and thus contact his mother leads him to encounter poklans (teenage delinquents), derelict houses full of bats and weird shopkeepers.

It's a fairly unsophisticated story and the idea that a ten year old is narrating is not quite convincing - the voice of the narrator is a little too self aware - more like an adult narrating a ten year old's experiences. Nevertheless, it is an enjoyable story. I was surprised to find that Jonathan's family all had western names, and there was plenty of mention of Western culture - a mother in Australia, New Zealand gardening programmes on the television. This would not have suprised me had it been, for instance, Singapore, but I knew little of Brunei other than that it is an oil-rich country ruled by a Sultan, so I was expecting something a little different. Still, other aspects of the story were definitely not western.

K H Lim was born and raised in Brunei. He graduated from medical school in the UK in 2008 and currently lives in Singapore. Written in Black was published by Monsoon Books in 2014.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Malaysia: The Garden of Evening Mists, by Tan Twan Eng

Teoh Yun Ling is a judge in Kuala Lumpur, taking early retirement to return to Yugiri, the Garden of Evening Mists. She had worked there, in the Cameron Highlands of what was then Malaya, as an apprentice to the Japanese gardener Nakamura Aritomo, at the time of the communist insurgency of the 1950s. She had asked the gardener to design a garden in memory of her sister. Instead he suggested that she work with him and learn to do it herself.

As the novel progresses, we travel back and forth in time between the present, the 1950s and the years of the Second World War, when Yun Ling and her sister Yun Hock were imprisoned by the Japanese somewhere in the Malayan jungle. It is a complex, many layered story in which the characters are not exactly what they seem on first sight. Why was the Japanese gardener, formerly gardener to the Emperor, in Malaya in the first place? What had happened to Yun Ling in the war?

This is an engrossing story and one that told me quite a lot that I didn't know about the modern history of Malaya - for instance, I didn't know that it had survived and defeated a communist insurgency in the 1950s. The book is infused with the love of art - not only Japanese gardens, but woodblock prints, the art of the tattoo, and music.

Tan Twan Eng was born in Penang, Malaysia. His debut novel "The Gift of Rain" was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2007. "The Garden of Evening Mists" was published by Myrmidon Books in 2012.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Macedonia: A Spare Life, by Lidija Dimkovska

I am gradually, through literature, becoming familiar with all the small nations that make up the former Yugoslavia. Macedonia is one of them - a country I would have previously thought of as more Greek than Slavic, given my main reference at that time was Alexander the Great ("Alexander of Macedon"). A Spare Life was originally published in 2012 and was awarded the 2013 European Prize for Literature. It is narrated by Zlata, one of a pair of conjoined twins. She and her sister Srebra are conjoined at their heads. Despite that, and despite being brought up in poverty, they live a remarkably normal, if somewhat constrained life. The story starts when they are twelve, and follows them through school, high school, university and adulthood. The twins have very different personalities and preferences. In high school, Zlata's choices prevail and they study languages and literature. Srebra believes this to be selfish and at university she insists they study law, which is more useful to society.

The author uses the lives of the twins as a metaphor for the conjoined nature of Yugoslavia. They have always dreamed of being separate. When a crisis strikes, the twins fly to London, after managing to secure financial assistance from a government organisation, determined to pursue a risky operation to separate them.

The book is quite a lengthy one. Just occasionally, I felt that the detail made it drag a little, but overall, it is the richness of the detail that is the making of the book. It encompasses the recent history of Yugoslavia, the transition from Communism to democracy, the nature of families, of sisterhood, of religion and cultures. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

Lidija Dimkovska is also a poet and her collection pH Neutral History (Copper Canyon Press, 2012) was a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award. A Spare Life is translated from Macedonian by Christina E Kramer and published by Two Lines Press.

Benin: As She Was Discovering Tigony, by Olympe Bhêly-Quenum

I was rather disappointed by this book. In my searches for an author from Benin, Bhêly-Quenum's name was the one that consistently came up. I was able to read an early short story of his, "A Child in the Bush of Ghosts" in an anthology of supernatural stories, "The Weird" in our local library. It seemed promising, but as I wanted more than a short story, I ordered his novel, recently released in English translation.

It turned out to be very different to the short story. From the first chapters, it was weighed down in turgid writing, full of jargon and not seeming to make much sense. Since it is concerned with the rise of neo-colonialism, and capitalist exploitation of a newly independent Africa, it would make sense for certain of the characters - the politicians and exploiters - to use some degree of "political speak". But it seemed as if the whole novel was drenched in such language, even in the mouths of characters for whom it made little sense. This made the novel very difficult to read, although in the final few chapters, where the tension between the characters is increasing and plot lines come to a head, it seemed to improve somewhat.

The novel concerns Dorcas Keurleonan-Moricet, a white geophysicist from France, posted on assignment in Africa. Her husband also works there in international development. However their marriage is disintegrating, and Dorcas meets and falls in love with a young African man. At the same time, she has discovered mineral deposits of great value. The novel raises issues of the exploitation of Africa's gold, oil and other resources by Western nations, and of the corruption of African politics.

There are questions of value raised in the novel, but I wish it had been heavily edited and made a good deal easier to read. I felt as if the didactic purpose of the book had somewhat taken over from the literary value of the story.

Olympe Bhêly-Quenum was born in 1928 in Dahomey (now Benin). His mother was a priestess of Beninois vodun. At the age of twenty he travelled to France and was educated there, where his first novel was published in 1960, and translated into English as "Snares Without End" in 1966. He has since worked in diplomacy and journalism with a strong interest in African affairs.

This novel supposedly "caps the career of one of Africa's major authors" (foreword). I suspect that I would have preferred one of his earlier works where the language may perhaps have been more straightforward, more like his short story.

As She Was Discovering Tigony was translated by Tomi Adeaga and published by Michigan State University Press in 1917.

Monday, August 07, 2017

Bahamas: If I Had the Wings, by Helen Klonaris

I couldn't find either of the books that Ann Morgan suggested for the Bahamas - both appeared to be out of print. So I was relieved to hear of a new book coming out, Helen Klonaris's debut collection of short stories.

Helen is a Greek-Bahamian writer (apparently there is a small Greek community there) who lives between the Bay Area, California and Nassau, Bahamas. The stories are mostly coming-of-age stories with LGBT protagonists. It's not a genre that I would normally read. Fortunately I found there was more to them than that. There is a sinister edge to most of these stories, supernatural even although not in a traditional ghost story manner. There is also a strong ecological theme, highlighting the tension between developers building condos for the wealthy, and the local people who are sensitive to the habitats of fish and wildlife and to the traditional uses of plants.

For the most part, I enjoyed the stories and was struck by the author's descriptive powers and vivid imagination. I found the sustained use of "you" in several of the stories irritating after a while. These were stories narrated by "I" and addressed to "you" - not the reader, but the one who is the object of the narrator's love. I'm not sure why it irritated me - could it be because it made the stories feel voyeuristic. Just when I started to get a little tired of stories of love against obstacles - the vigorous homophobia of small religious communities - the final story, "The Dreamers" drew me in and blew me away. It's definitely the most powerful in the collection and left me with a lot to ponder on.

If I Had the Wings is published by Peepal Tree Press, a British publisher of Caribbean and Black British fiction.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Argentina: The Days of the Deer, by Liliana Bodoc

I read this book in the first few months of my world reading project, before I started blogging about it. So last time I was at the library, I picked up a copy to refresh my memory.

Liliana Bodoc is probably not a name that will come high up in the results when searching online for Argentinean writers. This is a work of fantasy, the first volume in a trilogy and the only one to be translated into English, so far as I can tell. Misaianes, the son of Death, is crossing the sea with a mighty force to attack the Remote Realms. In the House of Stars, astronomers read the omens and debate whether the fleet that they see coming is benign or evil. Messages are sent out to the seven tribes to call representatives to a Great Council. It is a long and arduous journey particularly for the representatives of the Husihuilkes, who live in the forests in the far south of the continent, in an area called the Ends of the Earth.

There are no maps in this book, but I could not help picturing the territories as having the shape of South America, and there is a distinctly South American flavour to the story. Though seven tribes are called to the council, the book focuses on Dulkancellin of the Husihuilkes, and on Cucub the Zitzahay messenger sent to summon their representatives. Cucub falls in love with Dulkancellin's daughter Kuy-Kuyen, while her brother Thungur grows to be a warrior.

I'm not a huge fantasy fan but I enjoy a mix of writing so the occasional fantasy book adds variety, and the South American flavour of this one certainly increased my interest. It's a pity that the next two books in the series don't appear to have been translated as I'm curious to know what follows.

Liliana Bodoc was born in Santa Fe, Argentina and studied at the National University of Cuyo. The Days of the Deer was translated by Nick Caistor and Lucia Caistor Arendar.