Friday, July 28, 2017

Armenia: Goodbye Bird, by Aram Pachyan

It took me quite a while to find a suitable book from Armenia. At first it seemed as if there were quite a few books around by Armenian authors, most set in the early years of the twentieth century at the time of the Armenian genocide. In the end, they all proved to be written by second and third generation Armenian Americans, based on the stories of their grandparents. Furthermore, it appears that the boundaries of Armenia have changed over time, and that the area where these books were set falls substantially within the borders of present day Turkey.

Eventually, I found that a modern Armenian writer, Gurgen Khanjyan, had a book translated into English, Yenok's eye. But it was somewhat expensive, and while I hesitated, it seemed to go out of print and become wildly more expensive. (Currently showing as $999 at Amazon - plus shipping to New Zealand).

So when I heard of a new release, "Goodbye Bird" by Aram Pachyan, I thought I had better buy it quickly, before it suffered the same fate. The book is described on the dust jacket as a best seller in Armenia. Either the Armenians have very sophisticated tastes, or their tastes at least are wildly different from those of readers in the west. I can't imagine a book of this type becoming a best seller here. I found it surreal, imagistic and confusin. The language swings wildly at times from first person to second person to third person and back again all in the course of a few sentences. It is often not at all clear whether the change of person is actually a switch in who is being referred to, or whether it is the same person being referred to from a different viewpoint.

The novel concerns a young man of twenty eight who has newly left his service in the army. He does not appear to have a job. He reflects on his experiences, his former girlfriend, and friends from his childhood and the army. The "Bird" of the title is apparently a cat, which he is carrying around in the early part of the book. There are many references to both Western and local literature and music. Fortunately the book was relatively short. I think I would have struggled to get through it had it been longer. And yet, once I did finish the book, I realised that even though I thought I had been totally confused while reading it, I had indeed built up a picture of the young man and his life. Perhaps it is like an impressionistic painting, where one needs to stand back to get the picture, instead of examining it too closely and seeing only random brush strokes.

Aram Pachyan was born in 1983 in Vanadzor, Armenia. He studied at the law department of Yerevan State University. Currently he works as a journalist and columnist for the Hraparak newspaper. Goodbye Bird was translated by Nairi Hakhverdi and published by Glagoslav Publications in 2017.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

After the Rain

My blog started off as a general blog, but it got taken over for a while by my Tuesday Poem posts, and then by book reviews (more summaries than reviews) in my round the world reading project. I intend to keep up with the round the world reading, so if that is why you are here keep checking back. But I'd like to get back to more general posts.

We seem to have had our fair share of disasters in Christchurch. Earthquakes, bush fires, floods... What's next, I wonder? A plague of locusts?

These photos are the aftermath of heavy rain and flooding last week, we live on the hill that is seen in some of the photos so our house was not flooded, but the land at the bottom of the hill is very flat so for a while, all our road access was cut off. The photos don't really show the full extent of the flooding as even with a panoramic camera, it would have been impossible to get the full scene with various spurs of the hill in the way.

This last photo is one I lifted from the online version of our local newspaper, it is the river just around the corner from where we used to live

The last couple of days have been fine but apparently more rain is on the way, I'm not sure how much the ground can hold. Unfortunately with changes in land levels since the earthquakes, many parts of the city are more flood prone than before.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Singapore: The River's Song, by Suchen Christine Lim

Earlier I read Kevin Kwan's book, "Crazy Rich Asians" as the Singapore contribution for my round the world reading project. Then I spotted Suchen Christine Lim's book at our library, and it looked interesting enough for me to want to read it also. It had quite a different feel to it - Kevin Kwan's rather like a very rich dessert (a bit overwhelming towards the end) and this one more like a fresh, flavoursome and healthy Asian stir fry.

Before Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew's modernisation of Singapore, a large population of street hawkers, fishermen, boat builders etc lived along the crowded and winding banks of the Singapore River. They are there no longer. They were evicted and moved to high rise blocks of modern flats, while tower blocks of offices and hotels were built along the river, which was cleaned up and straightened, with many of the winding creeks that fed it concreted over.

This novel tells the story of Ping, the daughter of a pipa songstress, and Weng, the son of a carpenter and musician. Ping's mother's fortunes improve when she marries a wealthy businessman. Weng takes the part of the local people and acts as their voice in protests against the clearance of the riverside settlements. He is imprisoned for his part in the protests, while in the meantime Ping has left for America where she studies music.

After thirty years, Ping returns to Singapore, meets Weng again and reveals the secret that has kept them apart for thirty years.

The narrative is skilful, and kept me absorbed throughout. I felt I had learned a lot about the development of Singapore, but never in a way that prioritised teaching over story-telling.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Botswana: The Collector of Treasures, by Bessie Head

This is an older book than many I have read so far, initially published in 1977. Bessie Head was born in South Africa in 1937, the daughter of a rich white woman and an African servant, at a time when interracial relationships were illegal in South Africa. She did not move to Botswana until early adulthood, but is widely regarded as a Botswanan author. At the time she moved there in 1953, it was still the Bechuanaland protectorate.

The stories in The Collector of Treasures depict the county in its early days of independence, and show the tensions that arose out of the conflict between traditional values, the legacy of colonialism, the teachings of Christianity and the move towards modernity. They are simple tales of village life, written from a perspective that seems that of a person who is somewhat of an outsider. There is a deep sympathy displayed for the status of women, who are not treated well by men in these stories. In many cases, the men might promise marriage to a girl, get her pregnant, and then abandon her - or marry her, but take other wives and girlfriends on the side. Sometimes the women in these stories take to violence to protect themselves, and this is treated in a very matter-of-fact way and appears to be taken as natural.

While the tales are simple, the writing is skilful and there are some beautiful descriptive passages, for example

For those who were awake, it took the earth hours to adjust to daylight. The cool and damp of the night slowly arose in shimmering waves like water and even the forms of the people who bestirred themselves at this unearthly hour were distorted in the haze; they appeared to be dancers in slow motion, with fluid, watery forms.

The Collector of Treasures was published by Heinemann in their African Writers Series.