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Reading “The Sellout”

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The opening paragraph, satirical, provocative and funny, decides the purchase of this book. The book looks like a madhouse of insight into race in America.

This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything. Never cheated on my taxes or at cards. Never snuck into the movies or failed to give back the extra change to a drugstore cashier indifferent to the ways of mercantilism and minimum-wage expectations. I’ve never burgled a house. Held up a liquor store. Never boarded a crowded bus or subway car, sat in a seat reserved for the elderly…

These are some of the most snarky and electric opening lines. I’m sold immediately.

[804] The Visitors – Sally Beauman

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“The most powerful spells known to his priests were recorded on the tomb walls—and there was a reason for that. These tombs are not about death, Lucy: never make that mistake—they’re about conquering death. Everything in them is designed to ensure safe passage through the underworld and an afterlife that would never end.” (Ch.14, 123)

Set predominantly in 1922 but spans almost a decade, The Visitors is about the story of 20th century’s greatest archaeological find in Valley of the Kings in Egypt. The story is told by the fictional Lucy Payne, daughter of a Cambridge don, who has been sent to Egypt with her American governess to recover from typhoid, which killed her mother.

In the Valley, Lucy meets the real life Frances Winlock, daughter of Herbert Winlock, American archaeologist and field curator of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s excavation site near Luxor. Beauman creates a firm friendship between Lucy and Frances—together they shadow the band of real life archaeologists (Beauman thoughtfully provides a list of names in chronological order and divided by geography) in sharing the mounting excitement and anticipation for the new tomb’s discovery.

The Egypt part makes up a bulk of the novel. It is the complex web of relationships and acquaintances in Egypt that will partially contribute to Lucy’s subsequent life. One of the key issues is the proposition that Howard Carter (discoverer of King Tutankhamun’s tomb) and Lord Carnarvon entered the newly discovered tomb secretly before the official opening with the relevant government officials and removed certain artifacts. This allegedly illegal act tarnishes the reputation of both men, who had achieved celebrity status at the time of the discovery. Lucy reveals the extremes to which people are driven by desire and greed. She witnesses deception and questions by what rights does Carnarvon deny the Egyptians the right to enter the tomb.

Following Lucy’s departure from Egypt, the story moves on to events to her career in writing, her reacquaintance with his father, who married her ex-homeschooling teacher Nicola, her rackety marriage to a closet homosexual, her encounter with a TV producer who asks about her experience in Egypt some 60 years ago.

Beauman has written a book with superb detail, blending real life events, fictional and factual characters really well. Although at times the events that unravel after Lucy’s departure from Egypt can be tedious and not as palpable, Beauman has a wealth of material in which to explore personal relations. Lucy makes frequent references to that past that has entrapped her but also has sustained her to an old age as she has outlived almost everyone.

Beauman’s sophisticated writing style is endearing. The style is comparable to university discourse but the prose flows seamlessly. She makes sharp observations about the behaviors and morals of the British upper class and the American wealthy elites. She really nails that sense of entitlement at the time when imperialism and colonial were at their peak. This is evident as Egyptians are scarcely present in the story, though the new and pressing Egyptian nationalism features in the background.

529 pp. Harper Collins. Hardback. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[797] Silent House – Orhan Pamuk

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“…and the wrought iron on the downstairs window was completely rusted. I had s strange feeling: it was as if there were terrible things in this house that I had never apprehended before owing to familiarity but that I was now recognizing with surprise and anxiety.” (Ch.4, 45)

A family reunion is taking place in a village near Istanbul, where Fatima, a 90-year-old widow of a doctor, embittered and trapped in the past, is awaiting the arrival of her grandchildren in a decaying mansion. The ill-tempered woman is attended by Recap, the 55-year-old dwarf who is her late husband’s illegitimate son. He patiently tries to safeguard his dignity from the demands of his tyrannical employer and the casual cruelty of his neighbors. Over time he proves to be the glue of this estranged family and that he helps assuage the inter-generational tension.

“Do you ever feel that way: sometimes I think I’m two people. But I’ve made up my mind, I’m not going to do it anymore. I’m going to be one person, one whole, completely healthy person. (Ch.24, 283)

It’s becoming obvious that the dilapidated house is metaphoric of Turkey, which is on the verge of a military coup in 1980. Fatima’s son quit as his job in the government in protest of its injustice. Like the occupants of the ancient house where memories entrap Fatima, the Turks also are no longer in control of their own destiny. The dwarf’s nephew, Hasan, a high-school dropout, realizes that no school work will enable him to escape his society’s rigid class hierarchy. He turns to a gang of right-wing nationalists to find his place on the world. This is how one knows that violence looms in the prospect. He becomes the story’s driving and destructive force, as he and his pack collide with two of Fatima’s grandchildren. Nilgun, who is object of Hasan’s fixation, is a pretty and good-hundred leftist. Metin is the young kid with an American dream. He, too, is a lovelorn, finding love unattainable and difficult to fit into the circle of rich kids in his school.

Laden with tension, Pamuk’s way of reverting consciousness shows a nuanced society across generations. The narrative contains chapters each told from the perspective of one of the characters. Each is constrained in the individual universes. Whatever constraint from the past—be it a divorce, a disastrous marriage, unfulfilled dream, social acceptance—entraps everyone who is also caught in a time of political instability. All desire to escape from their own awareness to wander freely in a world outside true mind.

Richly layered and character-driven, this book shows the political and social strains in Turkey in the run-up to the military coup in the 1980s, with rival philosophies uncompromisingly heading to national conflicts and personal tragedies. This is Pamuk’s second novel, written 30 years years, well before he received the Nobel Prize. It’s a novel that addresses and satirized national issues of Turkey.

402 pp. Faber & Faber. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[796] All Our Worldly Goods – Irene Nemirovsky

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“The ones who fought in it remember it only too well. Collective memory is a terrible thing. They say that people tend to forget; yes, they do, but the way animals forget: they remember having suffered, but not why . . . This kind of memory is instinctive, full of blind resentment, injustice, hatred, and stupidity.” (Ch.25, 213)

Set in France between 1910 and 1940, spanning two wars, All Our Worldly Goods is a story of war, family, enduring love and star-crossed lovers. In 1911, the well-heeled Hardelot family owns a paper mill in Saint Elme, a dull, respectable town near the Somme. The matriarchs plan marriages without reference to their children’s desires. Social and financial stability are the priorities, and they are indifferent to international politics. Since the bourgeoisie does not mingle with the lower classes, marriage between Agnes and Pierre Hardelot is unthinkable, let alone allowed.

But love refuses to be stifled by respectability. When Pierre breaks his engagement with the affluent but unattractive Simone, to marry below-the-salt Agnes, the community goes abuzz in shock. To the Hardelots the marriage is a disgrace, a scandal. Pierre ceases to exist for his very stubborn grandfather, who excludes him from family business and ostracizes Agnes.

The Hardelots had lived for their factory. They had married ugly women; they had skimped and counted every last penny; they had been rich and had enjoyed fewer pleasures than the poor. They had stifled their children’s interests, thwarted their lives. (Ch.20, 167)

Over time, Saint Elme has been swept by war. Germans have occupied the town and all the men went to war. Pierre’s father Charles is killed by a shell as he prays for his son’s life to be spared. The grandfather stands strong, though the bourgeois value begins to shake. The new generation rises up and finds such obduracy absurd. History of defiance is to repeat itself. Pierre’s son Guy wants to marry Rose, the daughter of Simone, who is ever more powerful as she owns the entire Hardelot paper mill. She is still bitter about the broken engagement thirty years ago.

The book is written in a very slight, succinct manner. The prose is spare but what is unsaid between the lines really accentuates human strength in times of adversity. Despite the gossips, the aged cynicism, the bitterness, the jiltedness, Nemirovsky observes how some vague instinct makes everyone want to endure these perilous times in the bosom of the family. The Hardelots’ enduring love for each other gives them strength to pluck the elderly and the young from danger, tend the wounded, and reunite children with their parents. But it is “what goes around comes around” story that reminds us of the best of human strength—love. It is love at the end that overcomes respectability. The ending is one that is most ironic, resonating with hope and reconciliation. The book is a very subtle study of lives.

264 pp. Vintage International. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[794] Intersection 對倒 – Yi-Chang Liu 劉以鬯

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Intersection tells of the way in which two characters’ lives, strangers to each other, appear to intersect in ways apparently determined by the nature of the city—Hong Kong in the early 1970s, when inflation was out of the roof and crimes were rife. The two parallel stories unfold on a day, when the teenage Ah Xing and the middle-age Chun Yu-bai eventually cross path at the movie theater. Everything about them—age, sex, station in life, the direction of the walk, and financial status—is the opposite. Everything the young craves has been achieved by the mature, but the mature is not necessarily pleased with his life. Whereas the girl wants a rich, handsome husband, the mature has been divorced. The young lives in a rickety old building not too far from a stinky public toilet. The mature, a transplant from Shanghai after the Sino-Japanese War, bought a few flats with his little fortune. Chun is living on the rents he collects while Ah Xing resents working in the factory. They have encountered the same incidents and people on the streets, but in reverse order as they are coming to the theater from different directions.

Over the course of the day, the happenings and scenes of the city provoke in Chun and Ah Xing stream-of-consciousness that is completely different. Chun bathes in reminiscence of the past, in particular the bygone age of his youth in Shanghai before the war. For Chun happiness only exists in his memory. Subjected to the same vistas but evoked a different psycho is Ah Xing, a vain, narcissistic girl who dreams of becoming a movie star and of marrying a rich, handsome man. She is enthusiastically appealing to the future as Chun is assiduously reminiscing the past.

During the time of constant change, “present” is almost very short-lived. What Chun and Ah Xing see and hear on the streets quickly transport them into the realm of their thoughts and imaginations, away from the present. This impermanence is evoked by the Joyce-like progress of Ah Xing and Chun, whose peripatetic meanderings through the city invoke thoughts about Bruce Lee, war, politics, inflation, and the overpopulation of Hong Kong. They each project their desire onto music, films, street scenes—objects of their obsession that displace them from reality. The narrative is interwoven with reality, consciousness, memory, and even imagination, which alternately take over their mentality.

330 pp. Holdery Publishing. Paper, in Chinese Language [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[790] Little Reunion 小團圓 – Eileen Chang

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First written in 1957 but not published for fear of censorship, Little Reunion is an autobiographical novel depicting Chang’s short university life in Hong Kong on the eves of Sino-Japanese War and her secret liaison to Hu Lancheng, who collaborated with the Japanese in the 1940s. She was warned by a friend who became the executor of her will after she died in Los Angeles in 1995 to revise, if not to re-write the parts of the book that would give her away and identify her. The thinly veiled Little Reunion is explicitly a roman à clef that takes the source material of Chang’s disastrous marriage to Hu Lancheng, who was an up-and-comer in Wang Ching-wei’s puppet government.

Like Chang’s other works, Little Reunion portrays love, and its many convolutions and iterations, in a bleak time. Sex is almost like a means of survival. This is a leitmotif that runs through her oeuvre. In many of her stories, like the very traditional Eighteen Springs (in which a young woman is raped by her brother-in-law in a scheme undertaken by her own infertile sister), the protagonist, after being contracted to a loveless marriage or relationship, reconciles with her and uses sex to ensure her own existence.

Chang takes a dark view in love, one that is dictated by the lack of love in her childhood. Her parents were divorced. Her mother became a world traveler. Her father an idle and opium addict who remarried. Chang, stubborn and hot-tempered, had fallout with her scheming step-mother. She resists and loathes the feudal norm that allows polygamy. She is distrustful of marriage but yearning for love. Her stand-in is Jiuli Sheng in Little Reunion, who does not believe in everlasting love; even in feelings, she believes there must exist some accounting or retribution; in any case, passion always runs out. In the end of the book, Jiuli scraps Zhixiong not because of his infidelities, not even because his role being a spy for the Japanese, but because the relationship was a dead-end.

The first half of the book is a tedious description of her messy, privileged childhood. Her household was a hotbed of sexual repression and competition among the different wives. The ironic title, which is mocking inversion of the Chinese phrase “big reunion”, the joyful celebration when a scholar’s triumph at the imperial examinations (Qing dynasty) guarantees power and prestige of his household and allows the many wives and concubines to take a break from the habitual back-stabbing and quarrel to enjoy their shared success. No, Jiuli doesn’t want such “big reunion” but rather a little, intimate one.

Jiuli is unconventional, but the choices she makes also renders her unsympathetic, as she refuses the fate destined for the women of her times. She chooses to write and expresses her disapproval of her time. She is also this unsentimental woman who copes with the reality of her philandering, unapologetically no-good husband with indifference.

Since the book is only a manuscript that Chang never finished editing, it is loosely written. It reads like some poetic effort to revisit significant fragments of her being. The narrative, interspersed with flashbacks, is strongly indicative of this attempt. It’s nonetheless unique of Chang’s rich and acrimonious lyricism.

328 pp. Crown Publishing. Trade paper, in Chinese. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Reading Paul Beatty’s The Sellout

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One book leads to another—it’s almost true. I was looking for The Nazi and the Barber, a hilarious Edgar Hilsenrath novel people have been telling me for years to read, but found Paul Beatty’s The Sellout because an article on Edgar Hilsenrath’s book at the bookstore. It was one of those banned books—banned in Germany for a long time—that addresses the subject matter with a frankness, not to be conflated with honesty. It’s one of those books that makes reader flinch the whole way through. This “flinching” feeling is what motivates Paul Beatty to write The Sellout.

The subject matter that makes Beatty constantly flinch is racism. His first experience of it was second grade, when a kid called him the “N” word. They got into a little fight. He went back to the day care center, pulled out the dictionary, and looked up the word. “I don’t think things were ever good. Anywhere, any place, any time. It’s not so much about color or anything else. There are some things that can be gained by convincing yourself things are good, so I understand why people do it.” Political correctness is not to be confused with goodness.

Beatty says one of the biggest problems is people tend to be accusatory. Pointing fingers and calling names. They skewer any opportunity of a discussion. The one thing that could be solved is some justice could be meted out. People can at least go to trial

Reading Eileen Chang’s Posthumous Novel

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First written in 1957 but never published, Little Reunion is Eileen Chang’s (author of Lust, Caution; Eighteen Springs; Rouge of the North) last novel. It took her almost twenty years to complete but she never made the necessary revisions after a friend, Song Yilong, who is actually the beneficiary of her inheritance, cautioned her about the sensitive autobiographical details disguised in fictional prose.

In this autobiographical novel, Eileen Chang describes the book’s protagonist, Jiuli Sheng—Chang’s literary alter ego—as someone who is not sentimental. She is an unconventional woman in her times, falling in love with a man who is allegedly a spy working for the Japanese during the Sino-Japanese War. It was sensitive material indeed as Song reminded her that the public could have used the book as documentary evidence against her.

In real life, Chang falls for a cynical and talented womanizer, Hu Lancheng, collaborator of the puppet government installed by the Japanese. They married in 1943, but as soon as he returned to Wuhan, he started to be unfaithful. After the Japanese defeat, he was hiding, but Eileen Chang found him in Wenzhou, supported and protected by a young widow. This humiliation did not save her marriage and they divorced in 1947. On the run in Japan, he published memoirs in which Eileen Chang, then a famous writer, played a hopeless role among his eight mistresses.

Little Reunion is a book about her childhood and her relationship with Hu Lancheng. In 1976, her friend Stephen Soong, Director of the Translation Center of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, advised her not to publish the text specially as Hu had been granted in 1974 a visa to Taiwan where lived three years. Their correspondences reveal Eileen Chang’s desire to destroy the manuscripts. She contemplated making the necessary revision but never got around doing it until she died in Los Angeles in 1995. 

[788] Island and Peninsula 島與半島 – Liu Yichang 劉以鬯

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First serialized in newspaper in 1975, Island and Peninsula, yet to be translated into English, portrays the reality of Hong Kong during the turbulent years between 1973 and 1975. It’s fiction with a realistic backdrop reflecting on the adverse social and economic condition of the time and on how common people cope with their difficult life. Lau insists that the book is not historical fiction, as he has no desire to chronicle the crucial events, but it rather annotates these historical events by placing fictional characters in them. They are in constant interplay with the tough demand of life in a trying milieu following the stock market crash in 1973. Many have lost their assets in entirety and even mortgaged their properties in order to pay debts. The city is hit by depression; housing is meager; commodities are scarce and their prices skyrocketing; robberies and burglaries rife; power outage mandatory; and unemployment a constant threat.

At the center of this social struggle, and thus putting it all into perspective is the Sha family, a middle class family with two teenagers. In the face of tough financial outlook, husband and wife are often engaged in heated argument over petty household matters, especially money in times of inflation and depression. Even a small expense warrants careful deliberation. They argue over stocking up toilet papers, plastic buckets (for saving water during rationing), canned food. Their bickering is often followed by a timely reconciliation, which shows how social turmoil takes a toll on individual mind and relationship. Through people’s interaction with one another, their clipped but sharp-tongued conversation, Lau really nails the nuances of people’s psyche, one that is dictated by the desire to stay afloat.

The book is not plot-driven, but the constant interplay between society and people, in particular how they respond to hostile conditions and challenges imposed on them, keeps reader engrossed. What loosely constitutes a plot is a continuous flow of contingent events imposed on these helpless people caught in a times of depression. Lau portrays a city full of ironies, which even the most rational minds have lapsed in the face of a windfall.

222 pp. Holdery Publishing. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[786] The Buried Giant – Kazuo Ishiguro

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“For in this community the past was rarely discussed. I do not mean that it was taboo. I mean that it had somehow faded into a mist as dense as that which hung over the marshes. It simply did not occur to these villagers to think about the past—even the recent one.” (Part I, 1, p.7-8)

Kazuo Ishiguro returns once again to his favorite themes of memory and loss, except this time it involves a dragon, which is not merely present, but lies at the very heart of the plot. Set in the time when native Britons and invading Saxons had been fighting over the abandoned Roman province of Brittannia, tendrils of mist curl around villages in which Britons and Saxons live in peace, forgetful of the terrible acts of slaughter that had enabled Arthur to establish his realm and keep the invaders at bay. Sure, the Saxons will indeed recover the memory of the wrongs done to them, and that the Britons will be swept amid carnage and fire from the future England. The she-dragon, Querig, curiously is responsible for this mist of amnesia.

At the heart of the book is a deeply affecting portrait of marital love, and of how even the most precious memories can end up vulnerable. Axl and Beatrice are an aged couple who, in the grip of the mysterious amnesia that had afflicted Britain, decided on the whim to visit a son that they had not seen for years, if not forgotten so much as existed. The embark on a journey that constantly tests their affection for each other. They meet a boatman whose duty is to ferry people to an island of the dead. Only if a couple can convince him of their devotion will he allow them to travel together. From that moment on, they dread their acts will fail them. Then they meet a warrior who is to kill the dragon, a man who is bit by the dragon and so the blood in him will seek congress with the beast, and an advocate for the dragon.

The story at times teeters into pastiche and takes rather weird turn of events. While maintaining Ishiguro’s usual provoking and elegant prose, the story might have stretched credibility. Read it as a fairy tale and let the jigsaw pieces piece together at their timing. All that said, it is a profound meditation on trauma, memory, and the collective lies nations and groups create to expiate their guilt.

362 pp. Faber & Faber UK. Pocket Paper [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]