BOOK 13. which I wish was longer

I’ve been searching for Ribeyro in our Balkan libraries. Just a few stories translated for some literary journals and/or included in anthologies of Latin American literature. I am a bit surprised since Yugoslavia had a great culture of translation. Translating a translation was not an unusual thing. No translators from Icelandic? No problem. Here’s Independent People in German. Translate it. Chinese? No? Here’s a collection of Chinese stories in Russian. Problem solved. Such hunger for the world!

Anyway, no Ribeyro.

The Word of the Speechless is a great collection. Those early stories (Tracks, Doubled) reminded me of Paul Auster and I wondered if he had read Ribeyro. Strange and bizarre happenings, uncertainty, shadows, ghosts? spirits?, unexpected twists (which, after two or three similar stories one learns to expect)…

Good stories, but I liked some other better. At the Foot of the Cliff, for example.

We are like the higuerilla, the wild castor bean plant that germinates and spreads in the steepest and least hospitable places. Look how it grows out of the sand, along riverbanks, in vacant lots, in garbage dumps. It doesn’t ask anyone for any favors, just a tiny bit of space to survive. It never gets any respite, not from the sun or the salt from the sea winds, and men and tractors trample it, but the higuerilla keeps growing, propagating, feeding off rocks and garbage. That’s why I say that we are like the higuerilla; we poor folks. Wherever a man from the coast finds a higuerilla, that’s where he builds his house, because he knows that he, too, will be able to live there.

A story about the harshness of life, the injustices of the system which favors profit above human lives, about loss, about sea… There’s another story featuring the sea –Out at Sea- which I also loved. Intense, a thriller really. One is constantly kept on the edge, hoping, waiting, in spite of knowing, like the main character himself, that no other resolution besides the one we’re all fearing is possible.

There’s a fragment from At the Foot.. I long pondered upon:

I say summer because we have to name things. In these parts all the months are the same: during some periods, there might be more fog, during others, the sun is hotter. But, deep down, it’s all the same. They say we live in eternal springtime. For me, the seasons aren’t in the sun or in the rains but rather in the birds who pass overhead or the fish who leave or return. During some periods it’s harder to live, that’s all.

I thought about names – how they often are inadequate because they’ve been imposed upon things, people. Also, I came across an old wish of mine – to read more about these places where there are no seasons, where conditions of life are notably different from mine. I remembered reading Chinghiz Aitmatov – the stories set in Kyrgyzstan’s steppes… What a strong sense of place I was left with! 

Silvio in El Rosedal was delicious. There’s a bit of Borges in it – a labyrinth, trying to find the true meaning of a word (res, or is it ser?), trying to decipher its message, find the meaning of life. These passages I won’t quote; they are long and better left to enjoy in their assigned habitat. But I want to quote some other ones…

Here’s Ribeyro revealing petty motives behind our actions and choices:

His dream was to return to Tyrol, in the Italian Alps, buy a farm, show his paesanos that he had made a lot of money in America, and die in his native land respected by the locals and above all envied by his cousin, Luigi Cellini, who as a child had punched him in the nose and broken it, as well as stolen one of his girlfriends, but who had never set foot outside that alpine terrain, nor owned more than ten cows.

A bit of Jane Austen á la Peru:

If summer was the season for masculine escapades, winter was the empire of women. [..] These mountain-dwelling families were tireless, and each always had a batch of women in reserve, whom they opportunistically placed into circulation for their ambiguous purpose.

There’s a lot of humor in these stories which I, for some reason, didn’t expect. (An amusing simile: The property fell upon Silvio like an elephant from a fifth-story window.)

It’s worth noting that, among other things, I learned that Nabokov called Freud “the quack from Vienna”.

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ribLA PALABRA DEL MUDO

EDITED AND TRANSLATED BY KATHERINE SILVER

Self-criticism from the Spanish edition:

Al escribir mis cuentos en la pobreza o en la bonanza, en unas horas o en años de correcciones, en mi país o fuera de él, sólo he querido que ellos entretengan, enseñen o conmuevan. Y he querido, también, proporcionarme un placer: pues escribir, después de todo, no es otra cosa que inventar un autor a la medida de nuestro gusto.
Por otro lado, no advierto entre mis primeros y últimos relatos alguna evolución apreciable. Ello no me inquieta. Podría citar el caso de numerosos artistas que han hecho, aproximadamente, durante toda su vida la misma cosa. Veinte años en la vida de un autor puede ser mucho, pero en la historia de un género no es nada. Sé que hay y que habrá muchas formas diferentes de escribir cuentos. Yo trabajo alegre y concienzudamente dentro de mis medios y posibilidades. Nunca he tenido las pretensiones de ser un pionero o un innovador. Yo recojo las enseñanzas de los viejos; y creo en los límites de lo que va desapareciendo. Vanguardia y retaguardia no tienen para mí ningún sentido. Lo importante es ser fiel a mis impulsos y transmitir, simplemente, el rumor de la vida.
Por último, mi obra cuentística está agrupada bajo el rubro de La palabra del mudo. ¿Por qué este título? Porque en la mayoría de mis cuentos se expresan aquellos que en la vida están privados de la palabra. Los marginados, los olvidados, los condenados a una existencia sin sintonía y sin voz. Yo les he restituido este hálito negado y les he permitido modular sus anhelos, sus arrebatos y sus angustias.

P.S. Some other stories to come back to: The solution, Nuit caprense cirius illuminata, Nothing to be Done, Monsieur Baruch.

P.P.S. I’ve just discovered Prosas apátridas, a collection of short texts about different subject, written mostly during the years he lived in Paris:

¿Qué son estas Prosas apátridas? ¿Son apuntes sueltos, páginas de un diario íntimo, una filosofía de bolsillo? Posiblemente son todo eso y más; pero sobre todo son un autorretrato espiritual, la esencia que una experiencia literaria filtra de su fidelidad a la vida. Varios motivos centrales evitan la dispersión de la miscelánea. Estos motivos son: la literatura, el sexo, los hijos y la vida doméstica, la vejez y la muerte, la historia, la calle como espectáculo y la ventana como observatorio de la existencia.

Sounds too juicy to leave for later!

peru

Assembling the list took a while this time.

Primarily, because there was a lot to choose from, secondarily because not everything I had chosen was available/affordable so I had to go through the process again.

The first draft contained almost fifty titles! Difficulties had been expected of course – even with as meager knowledge of Peruvian literature as mine – but I still was surprised by the number of authors and books that had appealed to me. Maybe I should have proclaimed this a year of reading Peru and buried myself into them. XD

Sorry to say that I’ve only read one Peruvian author prior to this project. Llosa. Pretty predictable. I read Dream of the Celt and Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. The first one left me thinking about politics, ethics and character for days, the other had no particular impact. Now I’m going to read more Llosa – a novel that burned because of the truth it exposed.

peruThe Time of The Hero. Mario Vargas Llosa

The Word of the Speechles. Julio Ramon Ribeyro

Blood of the Dawn. Claudia Salazar Jimenez

The Distance Between Us. Renato Cisneros

The Cardboard House. Martin Adan

Deep Rivers. Jose Maria Arguedas


Somehow, having six books on these lists became a rule.. It will have to be broken for I don’t think I will be able to leave reading Silver, Sword and Stone for some other opportunity, and if, by some chance, The Sky Over Lima arrives by the time the other books are read, it will be picked up as well. 

So, a long stay in Peru is smiling on me. Especially because I’m contemplating reading either Deep Rivers or The Blue Hour in Spanish depending on which one of these uses a simpler language. 

Excited about Claudia Salazar Jimenez!

Looking forward to Renato Cisneros, my first Charco Press book!

Starting with Ribeyro.

so long, malaysia

I am getting better at this. It didn’t take me seven months to read and write about six books as the case was with Italy. Only four this time!

Reading is (almost never) a problem, writing regularly is. I’ve been out of practice for so long that sometimes I hate the very thought of it, so I procrastinate, postpone… and feel guilty about it…

Then I remind myself that this (to keep notes, to keep a kind of a journal along this journey) is something I want to do, that there are reasons why I want this, and that they are too important to let myself hide behind insignificant and temporary pleasures of things one usually does while procrastinating.

So, I wish to note here that I got better at pushing myself to do what I want to do, and I am happy with the progress I’ve made. Hopefully, with time, there’ll be less and less of pushing and more of just doing.

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This Malaysian part of the journey did not have a particularly exciting start, but it improved with every next book I read, which is a great thing. I planned to read four, maybe five books but ended up with six. I thought, even before I began to plan this journey, that once in, it’s going to be difficult to stop, to set the limits, that I would feel an urge to stay and read all the books I can get my hands on until I’m sufficiently fluent in the country’s literature.

I could stay and read The Garden of Evening Mists, maybe read something else by Aw, try to find …And The Rain My Drink by Han Suyin. Track down Never Mention It Again, a story by Ho Sok Fong. Then, there are those Malay writers I wished to check out – Huzir Sulaiman, Shahnon Ahmad and Abdullah Hussain… I’ve discovered some more names in the course of my time in Malaysia – K.S. Maniam, Lloyd Fernando, Jacqueline Ann Surin – and I’d like to explore their writing as well.

All these people, books will have to wait for the next visit because I need this project to have a shape. There has to be some limits.

I’ve enjoyed Malaysia. Yes, I know that I criticized half of the novels I’ve read (Aw, Manicka), but I was also in awe and full of excitement (Samarasan, Ho). And I’ve learned a lot about Malaysian culture and society, gotten a sense of the place. Time to catch a flight now.

To Peru.

BOOK 12. which is something you read twice

At least!

 

So, this was the last stop on the journey through Malaysia.

It was also the only work in translation, out of the six I’ve read; and one of just two books I actually got to hold in my hands, turn its pages. 

Lake Like a Mirror is a set of nine elusive texts. There are layers upon layers, the stories are intertwined in different kinds of ways, subtle or obvious. 

It’s a book that sets itself apart from all of the other five because it reads like a work of an author who puts more gravity on her art, on her idea of literature than on the accessibility of the story. “Ho likes to leave a lot of space – ambiguity most of the time. [..] She once described her stories to me as connecting the dots as she wants different readers to connect differently, and to see different stories in their own perspectives.”, Natascha Bruce said, the translator.

The stories are often dreamlike – the reality is bent, the language poetic, challenging, the narrators changing without us noticing it immediately. In short, every possible element of a story is in motion here, morphing almost constantly into something other than it was, which is why many readings/interpretations are possible.

‘The Wall’ reminded me of Calvino, his cloven knight. The woman in this story becomes so thin that she has no problem fitting through the door opened a little wider than the width of a foot.

She was the thinnest person we’d ever seen, like one of the paper figures we used to shut inside our books and hide in our desk drawers at school [..].

When she spoke, we could see the air passing magically along her throat, making her vocal cords quiver like violin strings.

All of the stories concern women. All of the stories problematize certain aspects of their lives, certain laws, rules, practices, and traditions of Malaysian society that hold them in a grip. There’s nothing a person can’t get used to, and Ho shows us what the price of this is. 

Before I move on to another country, I am going to reread these stories because, as I mentioned, one reading is not enough.

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book no. 12

malaysia

originally published in Chinese, in 2014, by Aquarius Publishing, in Taiwan

translated by Natascha Bruce

malaysia

When the developers said they were building a wall to keep out the sound, everybody thought it was a good idea.

BOOK 11. which is simply marvelous

To think that I almost chose not to read it!

From the beginning, Evening Is the Whole Day’s status on my list of Malaysian books was “maybe”. Something about the description on Goodreads and other sites made me ambivalent about it and I never thought that I am really going to pick it up. I supposed the first four books on the list would be enough.

After finding out about the existence of Lake Like a Mirror, I thought I could just as well read another book from the list while I am waiting for its arrival. And then, Evening Is the Whole Day turns out to be the best one yet!

Here’s a list (never tired of lists!) of the reasons why I loved it: 

→  the acuteness of perception

She is excellent at body language, motivation, unconscious and conscious reasons behind our/characters’ reactions.

Here’s six-year-old Aasha, in an uncomfortable, toxic situation, looking for safety, a kind of a shelter:

Aasha rocks back and forth in her chair so that her stretched-out toes, on every forward rocking, brush against Suresh’s knees under the table. It makes her feel better that he has knees, even if Uma has disappeared forever and Amma has been strangely transformed. He has knees. And again he has knees. Each time he has knees.

Reminds me of how people can feel uneasy when it turns out that a new acquaintance is a psychologist. How they imagine they are being analyzed, judged, and how it’s actually what good writers tend to do (yet nobody’s uncomfortable around them?) – observe, read the body language, read between the lines, make connections, recognize the key details, make notes in their heads… Samarasan is that kind of writer.

→  the third-person narrator (and an omniscient one at that!)

Finally! After all those first-person narratives this came as a long longed-for glass of fresh water. I felt its blessings immediately. A deep breath. Relaxation.

We get to go all the way inside the characters’ minds, their feelings, and the fact that we are told what they are, why they are, takes nothing away from the enchantment. They are interesting, well-rounded characters that we get to know pretty well.

→  the structure

The way we get to know the characters, the way the story is told is another thing that thrilled me. We go back in time. All the time. To a certain point, to a certain event that caused the change in Uma’s behavior, and consequently the atmosphere of the house.

It’s like self-reflection. You always ask yourself  “why?” and try to be completely honest with yourself answering these whys; go deeper and deeper, to understand, to change..

Here, in this novel, we witness a scene, characters behaving in a certain way, and the next chapter takes us back in time, to an event that preceded the scene, that shows, explains why characters behaved the way they did. Not completely, of course, because things, minds are never so simple, which means that in the next chapter we travel even further back to get another piece of the puzzle, and so on… It’s a rewarding structure. 

→  politics, society

There’s one line of the novel that progresses into the future, but it’s a short one, it doesn’t go all the way to the end, through the whole of the novel. It concerns the family’s history – how the grandfathers came to Malaysia, their struggle to rise in status, how Appa and Amma met… 

Although we are pretty much closed inside the Big House, the outer world finds its way in, and we get an insight into the country’s problems with race and class, prejudice, and nationalism. 

→  not catering to Western readers

With The Harmony Silk Factory and The Rice Mother (partly with The Gift of Rain, as well) it was obvious that they were written with a Western audience in mind. Not Evening Is the Whole Day. I appreciated this beyond words. It’s a genuine, Malaysian book. Samarasan doesn’t explain things every Malaysian would know to us, she uses local English, Malayan, Tamil, and I was perfectly OK with not knowing what some of the words meant – sometimes their meaning could be guessed, sometimes it was intuitive, sometimes I would google, and sometimes just let the ignorance be.

There are many other things one could talk about – the contrast between Uma and Chellam, prejudice and expectations in relation to Uncle Ballroom, the introduction to the Big House that tastes like a fairy tale, the personification of Rumor and Fact, for example. All worthy subjects. Samarasan’s language is full of adjectives and adverbs, but again, it differs from their overuse in The Rice Mother. I am not sure why it’s so. Another thing that connects these two novels is that they both touch upon a certain tabu, again in very different ways.

Looking forward to reading Evening Is the Whole Day again!

And to reading more Preeta Samarasan.

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book no. 11

malaysia

There is, stretching delicate as a bird’s head from the thin neck of the Kra Isthmus, a land that makes up half of the country called Malaysia. Where it dips its beak into the South China Sea, Singapore hovers like a bubble escaped from its throat. This bird’s head is a springless summerless autumnless winterless land.

rubberdust

I loved “Rubberdust” by Sarah Thankam Mathews because its details of childhood are so specific and weird and recognizable and familiar and because a story about being a kid in school turns on its head most of the way through and becomes meta while still unfolding as a story about being a kid in school. [Curtis Sittenfeld, BASS2020]

Now I am cheating a bit! I read the story last week – it’s a December story, but I am only writing about it now.

Rubberdust didn’t make me euphoric, didn’t send me on an exploring spree like The Nine-Tailed Fox did. On the contrary, it made me remember… Made me go back to my childhood, to the atmosphere of the first and second grade classroom, to the relationships with my fellow classmates…

“The relevance of this seems grounded in a kind of cultural specificity that the narrator doesn’t include the audience in on,” one man says carefully.

It’s a critique of the story we are reading. Inside the story we are reading.

Baseless.

It might be that it’s set in a school somewhere in India (it’s not specified), but there is, as Sittenfeld said, familiarity, there is universality in its truths, in its depiction of children’s conversations, interactions.

How do they approach one another? How do they make friends? How do they learn about one another?

“OK fine, challo, let’s get married,” Anuj whispers to the little girl, apropos of nothing. She smiles at him, then raises her eyebrows to signal: watch. She scoops a handful of rubberdust from under the desktop and shows him: she’s been mixing it with color-pencil shavings.

Hand outstretched, she begins to powder it on Karan’s head. Anuj covers his hands with his mouth to muffle his snickering.

Karan whips around, facing the little girl. His bulging eyes are full of tears.

“Why do you do this?” Karan hisses, face twisting, swatting at his own head, and the rubberdust-and-shavings mix dribbles down his forehead and gets into his eyes.

“Ow, oww.”

He rubs his eyes furiously, mewling in pain. The little girl’s mouth turns dry like sand.

She turns around to Anuj, who looks thunderstruck. By now, the other children around them are staring, whispering like so many rustling leaves. Karan runs out of the room, hands over his eyes.

How do they learn about themselves?

“I won’t tell Ma’am” is all he mumbles, before starting down the stairs to the nurse’s office, and she doesn’t know how to say that that’s not it, that his tattling isn’t remotely the shape of her fear, that the dark creature that has galloped into her chest and gnaws around her organs might actually be kept at bay if Mrs. Tareen thrashed her, sent her to the principal’s office, wrote DID NOT BEHAVE TODAY across the front of her blouse.

She captures beautifully the moment we first realize that our behavior can have consequences we’ve never thought of, the guilt, the weird and often inadequate ways we say “sorry”.

So, this was another story I loved. Not just because of its subject but its structure as well. I love meta-narratives.

Here’s a simile I found exciting, featuring doors:

He lifts his newspaper back up between the two of them like he is closing a door.

And another wonderful image, also featuring doors:

She stares at the upright, blinking line that is the door for words to walk out of, lifts her fingers to the keys, and pushes down.

There’s also a lot of things rustling like leaves, all connected to some issues, problems: teachers’ saris when they’re gossiping about a colleague’s divorce, children in the classroom whispering about the little girl’s hurting Karan, Anuj’s breath while sniffling because he’s guilty as well…

Also, there are those things about Gandhi I didn’t know! -.-

Sarah Thankam Mathew’s story was first published in Kenyon Review.

winter solstice

The evening of the winter solstice was spent sitting by the fire, drinking hot cocoa, eating chocolate chip cookies and reading Rockwell Kent’s Wilderness: A Jounal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska.

We have had an unusually mild, one can even say warm December here in Sarajevo – 16°C last Sunday! – but it seems we are getting a bit of snow this weekend.

map

The Journal is wonderful. It’s an account of the time Kent spent on Fox Island with his son (also named Rockwell) and a neighbor, a Swede named Olson, a pioneer that settled on the island after the Nome gold rush. It’s summer of 1918 and it’s raining almost all the time. It bothers no one. They are so happy to be in this wilderness that even chores are done with readiness and joy. He calls them fantastic!

I wonder if you can imagine what fun pioneering is. To be in a country where the fairest spot is yours for the wanting it, to cut and build your own home out of the land you stand upon, to plan and create clearings, parks, vistas, and make out of a wilderness an ordered place! Of course so much was done—nearly all—when I came. But in clearing up the woods and in improving my own stead I have had a taste of the great experience. Ah, it’s a fine and wholesome life!…

Here I began to wonder why one must make out of a wilderness an ordered place, and how much order is enough. Kent admits himself that 

There is a fascination in cutting trees. Once I have gripped my axe, or even the tedious saw, I find it hard to relinquish it, returning to it again and again for one more cut. I believe that the clearing of homesteads gave the pioneer a compelling interest in life that was in wonderful contrast to the ordinary humdrum labor to which at first he must have been bred. It is easy to understand the rapid conquest of the wilderness; begin it—and you cannot stop.

I love this Northern nature, and what I love I must possess, wrote Kent to an art critic, Dr Christian Brinton.

The younger Rockwell is a curious and delightful boy. His natural love for every living thing, his claim, which is half play and half a real belief, that everything that lives is his child should put us all to shame. 

Yet he also must possess. He wants a pet. They manage to catch a magpie, which dies a few days later, and then also a porcupine. Which dies as well. I wonder if there’s going to be more wild creatures dying because of this wish to turn them into pets.  

Kent has an interesting passage about boys, education, and cruelty:

But of this I am certain,—that nothing will make a child more ridiculous in the eyes of the mob child than this most perfect and most beautiful attitude of some children toward life. In considering the education of a child and weighing what is to be gained or lost by one system or another I am inclined to think that no gain can outweigh the loss to a child of its loving, non-predatory impulses.

meal time

The winter doesn’t seem to be so cold on the island (at least not yet! I am yet to read about Christmas) but it’s a windy one. I am savoring his art, his descriptions of their walks, of the raging of the wind, moonlit nights, of quiet moments of being… Like this one:

We went down an avenue through the tall spruce trees. The sun flecked our path and fired here and there a flame-colored mushroom that blazed in the forest gloom. Right and left we saw deep vistas, and straight ahead a broad and sunlit space, a valley between hills; there lay the lake. It was a real lake, broad and clean, of many acres in extent, and the whole mountain side lay mirrored in it with the purple zenith sky at our feet. Not a breath disturbed the surface, not a ripple broke along the pebbly beach; it was dead silent here but for maybe the far off sound of surf, and without motion but that high aloft two eagles soared with steady wing searching the mountain tops. Ah, supreme moment! These are the times in life—when nothing happens—but in quietness the soul expands.

I am looking forward to get back to the Wilderness tonight.

the cabin window

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There’s an idea, an intention I am constantly rethinking, evaluating, abandoning – to celebrate solstices and equinoxes reading something appropriate, so to say… and also, to dedicate each season to a different subject of interest. It seems that the time is right for this to stop being an idea only, that I am ready to stop prioritizing literature so much.

winterSo, winters are for books about books, literary theory and criticism, and of course for nature writing that predominantly features winter. 

Here’s my little list for the winter ahead:

  • Wilderness. Rockwell Kent
  • The William H. Gass Reader.  (HUGE!)
  • Moomin Comics, Book 1. Tove Jansson
  • Winter. Ali Smith (I know, I know, but it was hard to resist!)

BOOK 10. which is about the roads taken

Will I ever learn?

I have, yet again, let too much time slip between finishing the book and writing about it.

Or, no… It’s not a question of time but of content: I’ve crammed too many things into my thoughts over the last week and thus suffocated the experience of reading it; it’s shape is gone.

It was another long book, but as opposed to The Rice Mother, I didn’t feel it was unnecessary long.

Often, after reading a book, I do a short search for other reader’s opinions on it. The frankness of this cry made me laugh:

And the number of similes good lord! I lost count of the many times things were compared to other things.

Hundreds of translucent crabs scuttled away at the vibration of our footsteps, parting before us like a curtain of glass-beads.

The gravel path sounded like ice being crunched as we walked past the fountain…

I got to the point where I was pleading for sand to just be grains of sand…

… the coarse sand was like grains of heated rice-husks beneath our bare feet.

(joyvspicer.com)

 

I think I started skipping over them after a while, unconsciously… This is not to say that the writing was bad. I enjoyed most of it. When he says that the rain is smearing the landscape into a Chinese brush painting, or when he describes how washing hung out on bamboo poles is sieving the sunlight for example.

The book is an exploration of binaries – love and duty, collaboration and resistance, us and them, fate and free will – done with sufficient complexity. Things are never black or white, and it’s maybe especially impossible for them to be so in a culture as colorful as Malaysian. 

All three novels that I’ve read so far talk about the Japanese occupation. A Japanese spy is one of the main characters in The Harmony Silk Factory too, while depiction of cruelty of kempeitai is what this book has in common with The Rice Mother.

The sense of place is strong (I want to see Malaysia!), descriptions of different communities, quarters (Within the island I could move from world to world merely by crossing a street.), of food (the most popular pastime here is eating; sounds like something from a tourist guide)… Food is another thing The Rice Mother and The Gift of Rain have in common, although it’s more prominent in Manicka’s novel. One can’t help but crave a taste of Mughal cuisine after reading about all the dishes Ratha creates. It’s something a typical European cannot even begin to imagine. In The Gift of Rain, it’s the Nyonya Chinese’s that is put on the pedestal. Now I’m hungry.

Before I go…

Why is there not a translation of Malayan fables? I want to read more about

the cunning mouse deer which, while drinking by a river, has its leg captured in the jaws of a crocodile. It escapes being eaten by deceiving  the predator into believing that the captured leg is only the root of a mangrove tree.

Sounds like it could outsmart the fox from Bosnian folk tales!

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book no. 10

Malaysia

malaysia

I was born with the gift of rain, an ancient soothsayer in an even more ancient temple once told me.

the nine-tailed fox explains

A month ago Karen (A Just Recompense) wrote to me to suggest joining her (and Jack, a friend of hers) in reading through this year’s selection of Best American Short Stories. My first thought was “Yes! When do we start?”, my second one “Hold your horses!”.

It’s a problem I have – getting too ambitious with reading projects that I inevitably end up drowning myself in them, and consequently abandoning them completely (see specimen no.1, specimen no.2, specimen no.3…). So, I tried to approach this challenge in a smart way, thinking it through with a larger dose of scrutiny. What I came up with is this: I’ll read a story a month for the next year.

This way it will not be demanding, and I’ll get to enjoy the book longer. Yes, there are twenty, not twelve stories in the selection but it’s not a problem – a) I don’t have to read all of them; b) depending on other readings, I can sometimes choose to read two stories instead of just one; c) at the end of this period, just before the publication of the next BASS, I can read what’s left of the selection.

I am actually looking forward to this!

The story I chose to read first (because I am not going to read them in the order they are presented) was a thrilling experience. I had chosen it because the author, Jane Pek, comes from Singapore and I wanted something connected to my (Mal)Asian visit. Here’s Curtis Sittenfeld’s reason for including it into the BASS2020:

I loved “The Nine-Tailed Fox Explains” by Jane Pek because it won me over from the first line and kept me riveted with its flawless interweaving of ancient myth and mundane contemporary life.

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I married the wrong mortal, I see that now.

‘She’s not mortal… Wrong for what?’, I thought.

I must be getting careless in my advanced age. I would never have made that mistake during the era of Shang…

I’m afraid I knew nothing about fox spirits before reading this story, but I could console myself that, at least, I wasn’t ignorant of the fact that the Shang dynasty was one of the oldest dynasties in Kina. What I love about The Nine-Tailed Fox Explains is that it’s not ‘doing the work for you’ (even though it says ‘explains’ in the title). The spirit doesn’t care if you’re familiar with Chinese myths or not, she narrates the story as if you were.

Familiarity is not a prerequisite for the enjoyment of it, but, of course, if one does have some background knowledge the story is read in a bit different way. For it’s a retelling – Pek is giving the fox spirit’s experience of the events that resulted in the fall of the dynasty.

I was hooked and very curious and spent hours googling and reading about the Shang era, fox spirits, Nüwa, and it somehow ended with this:

Belief in fox spirits has also been implicated as an explanatory factor in the incidence of the attacks of koro [..] found in southern China and Malaysia in particular.

Koro is a culture-bound syndrome delusional disorder in which an individual has an overpowering belief that one’s sex organs are retracting and will disappear, despite the lack of any true longstanding changes to the genitals.

Safe to say, I learned a lot that day.

I can’t tell whether either my husband or his best friend know this, the fact of his love, which shimmers in his hair and on his hands like deep-sea phosphorescence: the way he watches her walk across the room; the way he listens to her speak as if he’s listening as much to the sounds of her voice as to what she’s saying.

It’s interesting that she doesn’t say ‘love, which shimmers in his face’ for example, or eyes. It’s hair and hands. I love it even though I am not sure why.

I also liked the way she talks about modern culture, about the fruit at Whole Foods, online dating sites, house parties in Brooklyn, New York, United States of Americaleaking cruise liner of a country.

What else has Pek written?

Looks like I’m going back to the story tonight, even though I’ve already read it three times. Writing about it is making me crave its words.  

I experience time differently from most. It’s come to feel a little like walking in circles, always in one direction, through a vast landscape. I can never turn around, but after a while I start seeing the same sights all over again. Mostly it’s the green indifference of grasslands, swaths of time vanishing without my even noticing; but now and then I hit a cliff, or a chasm, and I have to pick out my path the way mortals do.

The story was first published in a magazine called Witness and can be found here.

BOOK 9. in which cruelty reigns

It took me two weeks to read The Rice Mother. At times it felt I would never reach the end.

I suppose one can say that it is an unnecessarily long book. Not only is it long but also packed. The first part, the story of Lakshmi’s youth and marriage, is told in a standard pace – Manicka took time to introduce us to the main character, to build her world. After that comes the flood. Waves and waves and waves of shocks, horrible events, cruelties that leave one wishing for some safe place, for a moment of peace and quiet…

They are scarce, those moments. Here’s one:

When she was young, she spent many of her waking hours in his lap as they listened to the static-filled voices on the radio. She sat for hours twirling a lock of his thick hair in her fair fingers, never suspecting that it was a magic trick that had the power to turn gentle giants into babbling fools.

It can also be said that the book is drenched in adjectives and adverbs. Manicka rarely misses a chance to use them, and she uses them repetitively. This might not had been a problem if it had been reserved for only one of the narrators (there are eleven), but she wrote almost all of them in the same style; so, besides drowning in overly descriptive prose one fails to get distinctive characters. 

It’s a shame really.

Still, I loved the book in a weird sort of way. Even though I often read it with a painful grimace on my face and with despair (caused more by the events and characters then by the aforementioned flaws). It also gave me more insight into Malaysian culture than The Harmony Silk Factory did – into its Indian and Chinese part, to be precise; and I spent many hours googling and reading about Mughal Empire, Siddhi, goddess Mohini…

Next one on the list – The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng. Apparently I haven’t had enough of cruelty!

∼∼∼∼∼∼∼∼∼∼∼∼∼∼

 

book no.9

malaysia

malaysia

the rice mother. rani manicka

first published 2002

malaysia

It was on my uncle the mango trader’s knees that I first heard of the amazing bird’s nest-collectors, living in a faraway land called Malaya.