Tag: Book reviews

Wang Ping’s American Visa: Unsentimental truth, from Shanghai to New York

Wang Ping’s American Visa: Unsentimental truth, from Shanghai to New York

“I have a green card. This piece of paper,” he tossed it in his hand and said, “has ruined two people. Sometimes I really want to tear it to pieces and go home.”

Immigrant narratives are the Zeitgeist as our little blue planet spins ever faster and international travel expands like rising dough, making space for all those Airbuses, stuffed to the gills with vagabonds, conquerors, and dreamers. Citizens of the world. Explorers. Settlers. Survivors. Since times immemorial folk has been on the move, dragging their suitcases and ghosts of their past along with them across consulates, embassies, and border checkpoints. They search for fertile lands and better job markets, they seek book deals and Western boyfriends, they endure bedroom cockroaches and subway groping, but at the end of all this gargantuan sacrifice they have no problem taking out the lacklustre treasures nesting in their modest savings accounts and distributing them among relatives “back home.” To pay for weddings, or pianos, or a new baby, or grandmother’s birthday. It’s tough to ignore the calls of “back home,” that guilty teasing of prodigal child’s heartstrings, that omnipotent umbilical chord that ties a soul to its cradle and simultaneously to its grave.

In American Visa, her debut novel that came out in mid-nineties, way before the kind of glamour we see in Crazy Rich Asians, Wang Ping delivered, in tough-as-nails prose, a pained, honest, and uncompromising account of a young woman coming to New York with callouses tempered by Cultural Revolution. Seaweed, with pigtails and maple leaf-shaped scars on her armpits, is labouring to escape a great many things. Hard menial work in the countryside, humiliation of communist “re-education,” unfeeling parents, sibling rivalry, and insurmountable burdens of duty to totalitarian State and totalitarian Family. Strategically crucified right at the intersection of regime and tradition, Seaweed is equally abused and dismissed by both forces yet serves them with exemplary devotion, a model citizen and daughter, a Stakhanovite Cinderella with only a duck and a hen to call friends. No, this is not magical realism, this is proletarian noir.

There is yet another dimension to consider – a place for a woman in a society aggressively shedding thousands of silken layers of its rich heritage. Seaweed’s sisters, aunts, mother, grandmother, female students and colleagues, all weave the tapestry of their own unique suffering, shamed, judged, humiliated, abused, betrayed, and abandoned. Their feet are too big, their armpits too malodorous, their libidos too high, their relations too poor. They shed tears of self-pity as they drive daggers of treason into their sisters’ chests, for all is fair in love and war. They wait, like Penelope waits for Ulysses, for their husbands to come home, for their American visa to get approved, for their mothers to say they love them, for their daughters to see that they love them. Some cannot endure the wait and run away to Japan or to Germany or hang themselves. Those lucky enough to experience the throbbing rhapsody of the New World are, alas, too wise (or too wounded) to be seduced by the Pied Piper of the American dream:

“English, eh, English?” She asked, waving the orange book fanatically under my nose.

I nodded, half scared, half fascinated by the feverish look in her eyes.

“Success, success,” she screamed. Although I could tell she was trying her best to soften her voice. “This book, American dream, success, rich and famous, you.” She thrust the book toward my chest.

Se mun, se mun, cheap, on sale, American dream, success, rich and famous, only se mun, just for you.”

It took me quite a while before I realized what she was doing. She had learned to say the price in Cantonese: se mun – ten bucks. She had quickly identified me as a new Chinese immigrant, and assumed that I spoke Cantonese.

I burst out laughing. This was too much, too bizarre, a white American selling the American dream in Cantonese and broken English to a poor Chinese woman. She took my laugh for encouragement and grasped my wrist.

”Yes, American dream, have one.”

There is little joy in this book, and love, like lipstick and Beethoven sheet music, is perpetually in deficit. There is some warmth, however, and, above all, strength of one seemingly unremarkable woman to win her very own corner under the sun. And this kind of strength seldom asks for embellishment.

Image: Hiveminer

The Unbearable Lightness of Scones -a witty stroll through bougie Edinburgh

The Unbearable Lightness of Scones -a witty stroll through bougie Edinburgh

“Did you see that survey published in the papers the other day where people were asked if they believed Winston Churchill ever existed? A quarter of them said they thought he was mystical.”

At what fateful sigh of time does history seamlessly transform into myth? At what point do harrowing mass bloodbaths become delightfully spooky tales by the crackling fireplace? Those grand, bushy-bearded kings of old, when do they slip into irrelevance? When does the sacred Stone of Destiny, the hallowed instrument of coronation, become just a minimally polished bit of rock? The Unberable Lightness of Scones (yes, pun intended) by a comfortably popular Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith, does not attempt to answer these largely rhetorical questions of collective national mind. This is, after all, meant to be an easy, jolly read, with obvious hat tips to P.D. Wodehouse and David Lodge. Furthermore, this wee gem is part of a series about daily lives and pedestrian dramas of inhabitants at 44 Scotland Street (a real street, by the way, a very typical, quiet, residential nest in New Town). Still, as readers are taken out for a fun stroll along those unmistakeable Edinbughian streets of fog and stone, they are invited to ponder, through personal journeys of a dozen characters, the fate and future of this royal city in the 21st century.

After all, every city and nation must bow to time. Even a place as enviably strong, creative, and rebellious as the stone pearl that is Edinburgh. A cradle of Scottish Enlightenment in tow with David Hume, Adam Smith and its own vibrant literary Pleiad (Burns, Stevenson, Scott), it is not sheltered from the winds of Zeitgeist. Work, leisure, food, relationships, blood, belonging, identity, all gets a good toss. Even Boy Scouts are not entirely without sin, as six-year old Bertie discovers, chaperoned by an overbearingly progressive mum in between psychotherapy sessions and yoga classes.

Speaking of classes, the novel is a clearly bourgeois milieu, populated by gallery curators, teachers, artists, designers, restorateurs, and aspiring models. They go to Australia for their honeymoons and misplace their fancy Blue Spode cups, yet not all is sedentary in this quiet swamp. These bougies try to stir their snug little teapot by engaging in contraband of illicit jam, choosing love over money, and even aiding the descendant of the Young Pretender Bonnie Prince Charlie reclaim his centuries-lost birthright to the Scottish throne. The folks of Scotland Street, through their amusing peregrinations, unwittingly labour on redefining their beautiful city as it gracefully endures into another century, weathered and wisened by all that passed before, from bloody Jacobite rebellions to the dark pleasure of the kind of life depicted in Trainspotting.

The Unbearable Lightness of Scones went to print in 2008, when the world was just entering the feverish pain of the financial crisis. That was a globally shared misfortune though, quite unlike the deeply national challenge thrown by the chaos of Brexit. The latter, still ongoing, made a careless tear in the patchwork of national identity, British, English, Scottish… Voices, questions, doubts, and long dormant anger are now reopening wounds, pustules, and callouses. A referendum can be a cornucopia of fury, hope, hate, disappointment, joy, ugliness, progress, regress, and a whole lot of confusion in between. It can also be a dud, a deflated balloon, a false alarm. Millions are raising their hearts to the stars to ask: “What makes us us? What makes this place ours and us of this place? Is it mountains and heather, castles and Robbie Burns, hearty curry with your Polish neighbours, or simply the zesty chill of Edinburgh air?”

In the Unbearable Lightness of Scones the remedy against tough times is simple – a lovely dinner with the neighbours, a no-nonsense menu, some flirts and giggles, and a cheesy poem-toast for a finale:

“I love this country, for all its ways,

I am as moved as any when I see

That landscape of quiet glens,

Those pure burns and rivers,

Those blue seas and islands

Half blue. I love all that,

And the people who dwell therein;

But I love, too, our neighbours

And those who are not our neighbours,

I shall never relish their defeats,

Not celebrate their human difficulties;

For, frankly, what is the alternative?

I see no other way.

I see no other way but that;

I see no other way but love.”

Love thy neighbour. Make them dinner. Fix the world. Sláinte!

Image: Leamne Arias Deniz, “Edinburgh.”

Jorge Amado and the complicated optimism of Brazil

Jorge Amado and the complicated optimism of Brazil

When the (English-speaking) readers are asked to name popular Brazilian authors, the lionized name of Paulo Coelho is typically first to pop in mind. Strange and indubitably ignorant it is that the abundant caverns of that vast nation’s literary heritage are but so scantly explored by the Anglosphere. Take the acclaimed modernist Jorge Amado, for instance. Accolades from Camus and Sartre. A bouquet of medals from USSR and Francois Mitterrand. Retold in 49 languages and immortalized on film. And yet, many of his colourful works are only now beginning to be properly courted by translators, with a number of some lovely English versions arriving on bookshelves in recent years.

In thirty-odd novels Amado gives us Brazil as it was growing into its glorious self in the first half of 20th century. Vibrant, messy, joyful, confused, diverse, hungry, lusty, devout, loving, jealous, and above all passionate for life as it unravels, faithfully accompanied by fiery cachaça. It is not all carnival, vaudeville, and picaresque though. There’s also slavery, exploitation, class struggle, poverty, and the complicated wealth of cocoa plantations. This elaborate tapestry is sewn together by the elegant threads of Amado’s aesthetics. At times, it almost reads like a bombastic cocktail of Mark Twain and Nikolai Gogol: buxom dames, heart-of-gold bums, charismatic thieves, philosopher shopkeepers, erudite vagabonds, and other assorted folk from various walks of life in sunny Bahia. Amado the communist doesn’t always go to labour to fully delineate the ideological barricade between the “rich baddies” and the “poor goodies”, however the message that the best kind of fun love, friendship and loyalty can only be found among the inhabitants of poorer communities is clear and recurring.

In Amado’s The Two Deaths of Quincas Water-Brey (A Morte e a Morte de Quincas Berro D’Agua) traversing class divides is the only remedy from monotonous ennui that afflicts a tenured civil servant Joaquim Soares da Cunha who, one fateful day, takes a tired glance at his wife and daughter, calls the both of them “vipers,” and departs, forever bolting up the door to his middle-class comforts, choosing instead the moist embraces of Salvador slums and a crown of “patriarch of prostitutes.” A few deliciously bohemian years later, Quincas (da Cunha’s slum nickname) dies, his weathered body submitted to intrusive and outrageously disrespectful post-mortem grooming by a great number of nasty relatives, all too eager to whitewash Quincas’ scandalizing, “family-shaming” metamorphosis. They dress him in a suit and put him and his respectable casket under surveillance, and all goes toward a perfectly boring bourgeois funeral. Thankfully, the gods of slums are not without mercy and send a throng of vagabonds to “rescue” Quincas’ body (no underwear but nice shoes!) and to give him his last legendary romp around town. Alcohol flows, fish stew in clay pots gives off fragrant fumes, bosoms tremble, arses shake, and Quincas, more alive than dead now, dances toward the sea, for he is “an old sailor without a sea and without a ship, corrupted on land but through no fault of his own.” Taking the last few thirsty gulps of cachaça, he submits his body to the sacred sea, the nurturing sea, the all-forgiving sea, as his fun-loving friends wave goodbye and return, once again, to their epicurean routines.

In a few dozen free-flowing pages of this novelette, Amado gives us, first of all, loads of saucy Rabelaisian fun as well as a lighthearted commentary on complex social structures and the nerve it takes to put a lid on the smouldering cauldron of etiquette micro-dramas, ties, suits, briefcases, and other nonsense. The resurrection of vagabond Quincas can also be read in a Jungian manner, as a ritual nod to the likes of Osiris, Dionysus, and other historical archetypes resonating with the collective unconscious. Quincas, after all, dies more than once, first as a civil servant, then as a vagabond, only to be resurrected, in both instances, by those who wish to place him squarely within the social class shelf they alone see fit for him to occupy. Quincas’ tango with death is his resounding refusal to be caught, to be classified or labeled, a fate, in his eyes, worse than ignoble oblivion.

The story of Quincas Water-Brey is but one of Amado’s many literary gifts to his motherland. Written throughout many decades and touching upon a plethora of subjects, they all nevertheless unite in an abundant wreath that celebrates, above all, joy, beauty, and optimism throbbing at the core of a complicated country.

Image: A still from the film Quincas Berro d’Agua (2010)

Mesa Selimovic’s Death and the Dervish: everyman’s ethical seppuku

Mesa Selimovic’s Death and the Dervish: everyman’s ethical seppuku

Mesa Selimovic intended his Death and the Dervish to be a commentary on faint-heartedness and moral cowardice that pervaded many aspects of life in communist Yugoslavia. Conveying this mood of metaphysical disenchantment, as all comforting notions of love, life, family, and country implode upon themselves to reveal nothing but punctured, hypocritical hollowness, Selimovic gives us Modernity, disguised in the shroud of 18th century Bosnia. It was a place technically within the coordinates of Ottoman splendour, and yet the most enduring cultural signal is not the aesthetics, the riches, or the intellectual rigour, but stifling corruption, abuse of power, violence, injustice, and countless other symptoms of an expansive empire feeling the burden of its own weight.

Perched atop this Babel there sits a Dervish. A man of faith. A man of doubt. One day, his brother disappears, and that’s when things start to get interesting, that’s when the masks drop and the prayer beads snap, and the Koran starts getting misquoted.

The Dervish Sheikh Nuruddin… His soul’s journey, documented before us in extremely quotable meditative plainchant, makes for a rather relatable, pitiable, sometimes admirable Everyman. Armed with Koran and ascetic rules of monastic life, he tiptoes along the labyrinth of society’s impossible choices, doubt cementing on his tired shoulders with each passing day. This doubt permeates every filament of human activity, its molecules invading everything from public spaces where political farce plays out with a hefty doze of injustice, down to the private nooks of people’s bedchambers, where one cannot be sure of one’s beloved’s fidelity. Everything melts, like Dali’s clocks, and the centre doesn’t  hold:

“We haven’t conquered the earth, but only a clot to put our feet on; we haven’t conquered mountains, but only their image in our eyes; we haven’t conquered the sea, but only its resilient firmness and the reflection of its surface. Nothing is ours but illusion, and therefore we hold onto it firmly. We’re not something in the world, but nothing in it; we’re not equal to what’s around us, but different, incompatible with it. In his development, man should strive for the loss of his self-consciousness. The earth is uninhabitable, like the moon, and we only delude ourselves thinking that it’s our true home, since we have no other place to go.”

Order, law, family, friendship, faith, all this, our Dervish discovers, is just victim to a “false conviction that we can keep life under control. But life keeps slipping away, and the more we try to keep hold of it, the more it eludes us.” Is it possible to accept this as a stone-cold fact and just move on? “How can a man live without beliefs that grow on him like skin, that become inseparable from him? How can you live without your self?”

This novel is chock-full of good existential questions like that, enough for a number of undergraduate philosophy classes to unpack. There are answers also, but more often unsatisfactory and nihilistic at best, once again underscoring the perpetual angst of a mind hard at work, digesting the cacophony of everyday chaos. Therein lies the timeless relevance of this work in our equally chaotic 21st century context. For instance:

“We should kill our pasts with each passing day. Blot them out, so that they will not hurt. Each present day could thus be endured more easily, it would not be measured against what no longer exists. As things are, spectres mix with our lives so that there is neither pure memory nor pure life. They clash and try to strangle each other, continually.”

Or this one:

“We vacillate between despair and the wish for peace and don’t know what is ours. It’s difficult to stop at either end, to embrace only one side, but that’s what we need to do. Any decision, except the one that will disturb our conscience, is better than the sense of disorientation with which indecision bestows us.”

The dervish is a spiritual Everyman, a stand-in for all of us, reasonably self-aware and yet not even remotely close to that coveted “inner peace.” He gives us plenty of stuff to work with: some are no more than elegant sound-bites, many are indistinguishable from modern-day self-help mindfulness vogue, and yet toward the end all of these noble aspirations, all this soul-searching and David vs Goliath heroism, all is lost in the vortex of self-destruction:

“Fear is flooding over me, like water. The living know nothing. Teach me, dead ones, how to die without fear, or at least without horror. Because death is senseless, as is life.”

Image: The Seated Demon, by Mikhail Vrubel