Monday, October 30, 2017

Papua New Guinea: Tabu, by Moses Maladina

A search of our library's online catalogue revealed several novels set in Papua New Guinea - but as one was written by a New Zealander, and one by an Australian, that left me with Moses Maladina's Tabu. Moses Maladina is (or was in 2003) a senior government minister in Papua New Guinea, with a background in agriculture, law and business. He served as Papua New Guinea's High Commissioner to New Zealand from 1998 - 2002.

Like my choice for Benin, the book deals with the exploitation of the resources of third world countries, and with an inter-racial love affair. However, I found this one a lot easier to read. It is set both in 1933 and in 1997, and alternates between the two to tell the story of Elizabeth Castleton, the young wife of an Australian newly arrived in Port Moresby to work in the Australian administration there, and of her lover, the Papuan Sitiveni (Stephen). At that time such relationships were forbidden, and the White Women's Protection Act rendered any native who had relationships with a white woman liable to harsh punishment. Elizabeth falls pregnant, and leaves for Australia and thence England where she makes a career for herself and brings up her daughter alone.

In 1997 after Elizabeth's death, her grandson Edward travels to Port Moresby both to find out the truth about his grandfather, and to investigate a business deal - which turns out to be a rather shady deal involving mercenaries and the recapture of a gold mine on the island of Bougainville from rebel forces. This story is apparently based on real events.

In "As She Was Discovering Tigony", my choice for Benin, the Frenchwoman Dorcas rushed so precipitately into an affair with an African man that it made no sense to me (the actual relationship later on appeared to be sound, but I couldn't see how it started, especially since she was an older, professional woman). In this book on the other hand, the story arc in which the lonely young woman with little to do falls for the native policeman who has been tasked with showing her around the island proceeds on a much more understandable basis. Although sometimes I felt like shaking Elizabeth for her incredible naivety and selfishness in exposing Sitiveni to the huge risk of discovery.

In 1997 although the country is independent, and the harsher laws no longer exist, many of the locals are still impoverished, and the country appears to still be run for the benefit of wealthier nations and their exploitation of its rich resources of gold, oil and fish. I did feel that the book was written more to raise these issues than to tell a good story - but it was well done and the storyline was quite strong despite the issues being clearly expressed.

Tabu was published by Steele Roberts Limited (Wellington, New Zealand) in 2003.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Azerbaijan: Solar Plexus, by Rustam Ibragimbekov

I waited quite a while for this book. While I found Kurban Said's Ali and Nino in our library catalogue, I felt that it had been published too long ago to represent modern Azerbaijan. It was published in 1937 at a time when Azerbaijan was part of Soviet Russia.

Some searching on the internet eventually turned up a reference to Rustam Ibragimbekov's novel, which turned out to be somewhat expensive, however I was able to get our library to buy it and eventually it arrived.

This book is subtitled "A Baku Saga in Four Parts". It tells the story of a group of friends who grow up in houses built around the same courtyard in a street in Baku, following them through some turbulent times in Azerbaijani history, culminating in the early days of independence in the 1990s. Each of the four sections focuses on a different member of the group. Throughout, we see them balancing self interest with their friendships, as they take various actions including betrayals to get ahead and just to survive. Baku is an ancient city and the book speaks of its culture, but also of how it is changing and becoming rough and lawless. There are glimpses of the economy which is built on oil.

The second section was the most difficult for me. This section focuses on Marat, who has stayed in his courtyard apartment when all the other inhabitants have left. Because of nearby quarrying, it is doomed to be pulled down. There are passages in italics which at first I thought were dreams, then perhaps flashbacks, and eventually I wondered if they were a mix of both.

It wasn't until the third and the fourth sections that I gradually began to understand how all the events described related to each other, and all the loose plot ends began to be tied together. By the end of the book, I felt I had enjoyed it, and been somewhat enlightened about contemporary Azerbaijan, even though I had been slightly tempted in the second section to give up (but didn't, owing to the lack of alternatives).

Rustam Ibragimbekov was born in Baku in 1939. He is an internationally award-winning screenwriter, dramatist and producer. In 1994 his film Burnt by the Sun was awarded the Grand Prix at Cannes and an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. (The narrator of the fourth section, Seidzade, is a writer of novels and screen plays, and I wondered if he was a somewhat autobiographical figure).

Solar Plexus was translated from Russian by Andrew Bromfield and published in 2014 by Glagoslav Publications.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

Bhutan: The Circle of Karma, by Kunzang Choden

I'm always wary when there seems to be only one book available from any country. The quality can vary. And this one sounded not quite my cup of tea - talk of "karma" and other spiritual concepts somewhat taken over by the Western new-agers tended to put me off.

My misgivings however were, to my pleasure, proved wrong. The book is the first novel written in English by a Bhutanese writer. And yet it read well, the English being of a higher standard than that in many of the translations I have read, where the translator should know their native language. The narration is simple and straightforward, telling the story of the life of a Bhutanese woman, Tsomo. When her mother dies in childbirth, her life changes. The book follows through all the twists and turns in her life, as she marries, loses her first husband to her sister, and later marries again. But all along she has desired to study religion and eventually she becomes a nun. This is a society where religion is the only type of learning. Her father has tutored young boys in his home, but as a girl, this was denied to Tsomo.

We see both the benefits and drawbacks of the simple life - the superstition and the useless rituals. For instance, the only treatment for a difficult childbirth is too feed the spirits and ask them to go away.

The book is a fascinating insight into the culture of this tucked away Himalayan kingdom, and also shows the changes than gradual modernisation brings to Tsomo's life - the building of roads, the coming of Western medicine.

While it would be good to have more books available from this nation, if I had had to choose from several, I would have been happy to have chosen this one.