Wednesday, June 20, 2018

'The Conjure Man' Peter Damian Bellis

Peter Damian Bellis’s novel, set in the deep bigoted South of revival meetings, alligator hunts, Spanish moss and bible bashing lynch mobs occupies a similar fictional territory to Faulkner and Peter Mathiessen’s Shadow Country. It consists of two intertwined and alternating narratives, that of Thaddeus, a man of no origin, an outcast, a loner who is his own sort of conjure man, who comes to live on the edge of a small community; and a boy who forms an uneasy friendship or alliance with him. The connections between these two characters is teased out over the course of the novel until gradually their relationship becomes clear to the reader. Interleaved with these two narratives is a third narrative describing the vanquishing of a (possibly mythic) alligator by a huntsman: this fable illustrates themes of ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ in which man establishes primacy over nature through cunning and cruelty.

Bellis is a marvelous, sure-footed stylist, employing a breathtaking range of totally different styles and voices for the two main narratives. The first person voice for the boy reproduces with marvelous accuracy the rhythms of Southern rural dialect, the kind of ungrammatical word-salad the woefully undereducated produce (this voice is highly infectious, and I found myself ‘speaking’ it for several days while reading the novel). Bellis achieves here a kind of beauty and sincerity which seems to elude most contemporary American novelists who ‘do the police in different voices’ and who usually only achieve pastiche.  

Time we up to the square, the festival lights they already on. The parade it done with and most the folks they done circle back to the tables. I aint see Mama or either Tramsee for too many folks, but there Willie in front of the barbecue, and he smoke-shouting for everybody step on up and get some…

The third person voice for Thaddeus is quite different although recognizably from the same locale, modernistic, stream of consciousness, in turn split between two voices, that of the narrator and that of the internal monologue of Thaddeus’s memory, this voice tumbling on unbroken by sentence boundaries:

…the good Reverend now forgotten, him in his black church boots standing once more in front of the now smoke black tent beneath the quaking aspen, the Reverend watching the tent burn to the ground, the bible still in his hand, a dream of what was to come, perhaps, or what was, or what might have been, or so it seemed…

The novel is hugely atmospheric: one can feel the mosquitos biting and the crabs tugging, and there is an almost unbearable sense of menace and threat hanging over everything, occasionally erupting into shocking scenes of violence which seem to arise out of the landscape itself. Bellis is himself a conjure man, able to bring to our eyes and senses a very realistic depiction of a specific milieu.

The novel contains a number of brilliant set-pieces, one of which is extracted in the  excellent short story collection: One Last Dance with Lawrence Welk, in which this writer’s ability to conjure up a range of settings, voices and characters is also displayed to the full.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

'Taipei People' Bai Xien Yong

When I first arrived in Taiwan over 20 years ago and was looking for somewhere to live, one of the places I went to see was a room in the house of an elderly widow. Her house was one of those old one-story wooden Japanese structures that you could still see in Taipei in those days, before they were all pulled down to make way for department stores and high rises. Inside the house, except for the room to be let, were piled crates, trunks, boxes and old furniture: I had the impression the widow was at any time ready to move out. At that time my Chinese was non-existent, so I had a friend with me to do the talking. After our visit, my friend explained the luggage. The old woman was one of those who had come over from the Chinese mainland with her soldier husband in 1949 with the defeat of the Nationalists, and who had set up temporary base in Taipei. Many of them had never bothered to unpack, for they lived under the idea that one day soon they would retake the Motherland. 50 years later, even when it had become abundantly clear that this would never happen, many of these old Mainlanders had not really settled down in Taipei, and still cherished their dreams of returning to the places of their youth and of once more regaining their status in the world.

Taipei People is a collection of 14 short stories by the Taiwanese writer Bai Xien Yong describing people just like my landlady. Published separately during the 60s, and for the first time as a collection in 1971, the work is rightly regarded on both sides of the Taiwan Strait as a masterpiece of Chinese literature, a contemporary classic. The title is ironic, because the protagonists are not Taipei people at all, but waishengren, 外省人, those ‘born outside the province’, as the Taiwanese call Mainlanders, as opposed to those ‘originally born in the province, the ‘benshenren’ 本省人, as the Taiwanese call themselves. Nowadays, with the passing of the generations, these terms are losing their meanings and their bitterness, but for most of the last 50 years, Taiwanese society was divided along these lines, each side looking down on the other. Bei Xian Rong himself is waishengren, the son of a famous KMT general who formed part of the exodus at the end of the Civil War. The stories focus on those waishengren who fled with Chiang Kai Shek’s armies in 1949: the singsong girls, taxi dancers, prostitutes, Beijing Opera stars, cooks, batmen, industrialists, widows, airmen and soldiers, generals, scholars and minor government functionaries, all of whom are living out their last days in Taipei, victims of history, survivors of loss, nursing their reveries of bygone days, putting a brave face on grief, and coming to terms with exile and defeat.

Some of the stories are told by the protagonists themselves, others by an omniscient narrator. Bai makes judicious and expert use of free indirect narrative, blending reverie and memory with descriptions of current reality, using techniques taken from cinema, such as montage, and jump cutting. He is especially good on how a chance sight on the street, a random word overheard in a bar can spark a whole stream of memory and whisk off both reader and protagonist altogether elsewhere. His characters have a surface vivacity, but he also somehow manages to convey their secret loneliness and despair as they come to terms with the fact that they will never go back, that the past is irrecoverable. His dialogue is absolutely masterful, reproducing a whole range of different voices and accents from all over China, and conveying between the lines the things the characters would not dare to admit even to themselves. The text is a tapestry of styles in which ancient poems and songs from the Beijing Opera rub shoulders with colloquial proverbs and street slang. Bai is the master of the light touch, the telling detail, the miraculously well placed word which unleashes almost overwhelming emotion. I found myself frequently wiping away tears, and weeping openly especially at the tale called Winter Night, a story of two old university professors remembering the days of their youth as student rioters and activists at Beijing University in the heady days of the May the Fourth Movement, a study in failure, set in one of those old wooden Japanese houses smelling of damp tatami mats, mould and regret, with winter rain falling softly outside and the taxis wooshing past at the end of the alley.

The best stories set up a powerfully affecting contrast between nostalgia for the past and suggestions of a more optimistic future, a future in which divisions such as weishengren and benshengren are no longer so important, in which memories are not so bitter, and in which a new generation is stepping up to really become Taipei people. What links all the stories is the city of Taipei itself, the city of exiles, which Bai describes in topographical detail, in all its weathers and moods.

By the time General P’u returned to the courtyard, a wintry evening breeze had
come up: the purple bamboos rustled and shivered. In the western sky a dab of the setting sun froze blood-red. The old soldier strolled to a corner of the courtyard and paused... for a long time, his hands clasped behind his back, his full silvery beard unfurling in the wind. Reminiscences of long-forgotten episodes from the Year of Hsin Hai half a century ago came floating back to him again, until his grandson Hsiao-hsien came and tugged at his sleeve. With his hand on the boy’s shoulder, the two of them, grandfather and grandson, went in to dinner together.

Friday, April 13, 2018

'Skulls of Istria' Rick Harsch

Towards the end of Rick Harsch’s new novel the protagonist – an American historian on the lam in Europe, on the Croatian coast to be precise - falls into an underground crypt filled with skulls, a depository from the long wars of Venice against Turks and Uskoks? Or a more recent ossuary of the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans of the 90s? He emerges from this premature brush with death with all his illusions shattered, his plan for a history of the region as told though the biography of a certain Giordano Viezzoli abandoned, and with a new understanding of reality, of who the people around him really are, and the role that he has played in their lives, how he has been a victim of deception.

I looked out at the world from that skull and saw first myself inert, wounded, and worst of all, a mock historian - an historian to be mocked.
Told in the form of a tavern confessional, Harsch’s novel explores issues of deception and truth, and the fraught history of the Balkans. In Vino Veritas, as the saying goes. The problem with being accosted by the local drunk, as Harsch must know full well, is that it can either be a revelatory experience, if the man can talk (and, boy, how the narrator of this novel can talk!); or it can be an evening of utter boredom for the listener and maudlin self obsessed justification for the tale teller, in which how-it happened is (in)judiciously mixed up with how-it-should-have-happened. Harsch’s tale explores the ambiguities of fiction versus non-fiction, memoir versus history, truth versus lies in prose of sizzling energy, linguistic invention, and confidence, completely at odds with the anodyne beige prose of most contemporary American authors. Harsch is a novelist whose work deserves to be better known, a writer with a style of great originality, power and vision.

Saturday, April 07, 2018

'Notes of a Crocodile' Qiu Miaojin

If I learned anything about life during college, it was to turn away from my shattered ego and move on.

Notes of a Crocodile describes the college years of a young gay Taiwanese woman, her various lovers and friends during the later 1980s and early 1990s in Taipei. Like most coming-of-age novels it describes the heartbreak of youth, the gaining of experience through the harsh blows of the world, the exaltations and despairs of first love, the gradual coming together of a sense of self, of a sense of destiny. And like most coming out novels it describes the sense of isolation from society as the first realisations of same sex desire dawn, the sense of an already fragile, fledgling egohood rendered even more precarious by the knowledge of an otherness, the knowledge that one is becoming an unwilling transgressor against society.

Lazi (pronounced lah-dze) and her friends spend their lives in the time honoured fashion of students everywhere: falling in and out of love, reading, attending classes, doing assignments, bickering, sleeping and earning pocket money, and analyzing every nuance of their relationships in midnight conversations. Their adventures are presented as a series of achronological entries in eight notebooks. The entries include reportage, love letters, records of conversations, sly vignettes and lyrical descriptions of Taipei, fragments, diary entries; the style ranges from the face-burningly personal – one or two of the love letters had me wincing – to the sardonic, from the wittily epigrammatic to a kind of freewheeling prose poetry. Imagine Haruki Murakami meets Banana Yoshimoto meets Rimbaud. Some sections appear to have been written right after the events, or even as those events unfold, giving them a rawness, an immediacy that can be quite unsettling, while others appear to have been written long after and come with the benefit of hindsight and reflection. The emotional intensity is relieved by satirical newsflashes about a plague of crocodiles that has overtaken the nation. Citizens are urged to exercise caution and be on the lookout for crocodiles wearing human suits and posing as real people. There is a hotline for callers to report sightings…

However, some of the entries often come across as being the mere rantings and bleatings of a rather self obsessed, overeducated but underloved overgrown child; a girl who has not yet learned the harsh truths about growing up,: that you are not as important and as unique as you think you are; an artist who has not yet learnt how to distance herself from her experiences to make them truly universal, (a kind of Taiwanese Sylvia Plath). At times, the novel seems to be little more than a ‘lightly fictionalized autobiographical account’ (words which must make many an editor’s heart sink) of growing up in Taipei. The fragmentary form of the novel only reinforces this impression of something half finished. One wonders, on first encounter with this text, what interest, what relevance, the half-baked descriptions of the trials of a college student from Taiwan can have for a reader with no knowledge of Taiwan or of Lazi’s milieu, beyond the obvious curiosity factor. One wonders also as to the book’s and the author’s cult status here in Taiwan.

Well. The narrator is highly intelligent, highly literate and highly self aware. There are references to Western literature and culture (but strangely, almost none to Chinese writers and culture). At one point when the narrator is torn between her desire for total solitude and her desire for social interaction, she wittily describes herself as clutching her copies of One Hundred Years of Solitude in one hand, and Lust for Life in the other. The form of the novel is said to have been inspired by the techniques of Derek Jarman and Genet. The translation is very good indeed: Bonnie Huie does an excellent job of capturing in English the Chinese speech patterns in the long stretches of dialogue, and even manages to convey some of the word play and puns that Lazi and her friends indulge in.

For Lazi’s is not only a queer coming of age, but a search for a self in existentialist terms that speaks directly to many (young) people in Taiwan, of whatever orientation. Lazi writes:

Most people go through life without ever living. They say you have to learn how to construct a self who remains free in spite of the system. And you have to get used to the idea that it’s every man for himself in this world. It requires a strange self-awareness, whereby everything down to the finest detail must be performed before the eyes of the world.

College in Taiwan represents the first time Taiwanese youngsters can take a breather from the utterly relentless round of examinations and cramming that has marked their childhood and early adolescence, and deal with the pleasures and the pains, the stresses and strains of growing up. This is not so much to say that Taiwanese are late developers in that sense, but more to note how the search for identity and a role in life preoccupies Western teens at a much earlier age when perhaps their ability to articulate their feelings has not caught up. Happening later, in their college years, Taiwanese are more able to articulate their dilemmas, to themselves and to their friends, and their diaries.

Reconciling the desire for self-determination and the need to meet parental and social expectations is a highly stressful and difficult balancing act that many highly educated young Taiwanese experience as an existentialist dilemma, as do the characters in the novel. One of Lazi’s friends articulates this as coming up against the wall of absurdity, a description that references both Sartre and Camus, and Dostoevsky. Another, marginal, character, a boy named Nothing by his friends, has scarred his face with a knife in episodes of self harm:

He vowed to cut through the other self that had been handed to him by other people. It wasn’t the real him. Then he traveled around the world with just a backpack and became his true self.

The existentialist dilemma is most particularly marked in two overlapping areas: family expectations, and gender roles. Lazi writes of her relationship with her family:

I let them form a new image of me. It’s been a constant struggle. I’ll always feel love for them and have basic needs to be met, so it takes courage to draw the line. But if I don’t, my love for them and my needs will become bargaining chips that I have to exchange for my independence.

Lazi is studying Gabriel Marcel, the French Christian existentialist, (who is also a key influence on Qiu Miaojin’s final book, Last Words from Montmartre) one of whose main concerns was how an individual can create and maintain loyalty (fidelite) to a group without compromising their existential selfhood. Marcel’s concept of fidelite can stand in for the Chinese concept of filial piety (xiàoshùn
孝順). It’s telling that Lazi and her friends turn to Western works rather than Chinese works to help them deal with their crises, presumably because the Chinese classics with their emphasis on xiàoshùn孝順will be no help to them.

Qiu Miaojin was writing in a time when Taiwan was only just beginning to make the transition from martial law, into what it is today: one of the most forward looking democracies in Asia, with a woman president, with firm and unquestioned rule of law, equal opportunities for both genders, the biggest Pride festival in Asia (an estimated 100,100 attended this year’s event) and a well-coordinated and vocal LGBT rights movement that has recently secured from the Supreme Court a ruling that will make same sex marriage constitutionally legal in two years, so far the only country in Asia to do so. However, back in the late 80s/early 90s, Lazi revolts when she considers the traditional gender roles that have been assigned to her. Human relationships and mutual attraction, she writes, are based on the gender binary, which stems from the duality of ying and yang, or some unspeakable evil. But humanity says it’s a biological construct: penis vs, vagina, chest hair vs,. breasts, beard vs. long hair…. Male plugs into female like the key into lock, and as a product of that coupling, babies get punched out. Those who don’t fit into the traditional gender categories are cast into the freezing cold waters outside the line of demarcation, into an even wider demarcated zone.

Against this negativity, however, Qiu Miaojin peoples her novel with characters who are gender fluid and who extend friendship to each other as they inhabit this wider demarcated zone, creating their own structures of love and loyalty, their own alternative queer family. The burgeoning gay scene of the period is described in terms that are remarkably prescient. When Lazi visits an underground club with a male friend, he tells her: Those people are all genderless. Or maybe I should say, they’re opposed to being bound by simplistic signifiers of gender….and in another conversation, one of the characters drunkenly proposes that they all try to establish post-gender relations with each other. Family and gender are aligned towards the end when Lazi’s friend Meng Sheng tells her: We come from a long line of deviants throughout history, a queer alternative to the ancestors that are an essential part of every Taiwanese family.

The form of the novel now starts to make more sense against this exploration of ‘existentialism with Chinese characteristics’ that is the main theme of the work. 手記 literally translates as ‘hand notes’. The book has all the appearance of having been written on the hoof, but this is merely an artifice, one that has been constructed to convey the impression of having being written on the hoof, a performance before the eyes of the world. In this it has much in common with European and American existentialist texts.

A close parallel in Western literature would be to that other great teeny angst bildungsroman, The Catcher in the Rye, with which Notes of a Crocodile shares a sense of outrage against the fakeness of an adult world, a sense of disgust against societal norms, and a similar freewheeling cynical style. Like death, college serves as a kind of escape hatch. But while death takes you straight to the morgue, college is a single rope dangling loose from the inescapable net of society. Like Notes of a Crocodile, Catcher in the Rye is a performance. Written by a thirty two year old man as an extended exercise in a literary technique known as skaz, this novel has often been mistaken for a cry of authenticity, and the unsophisticated (or simply the very young) often mistake Holden Caulfied’s rants as ‘the real thing’. Likewise, Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, and Sartre’s Nausea, both good examples in view of Lazi’s existentialism, also purport to be authentic cries of a tortured soul. But these novels are only posing as such; their real purpose is to render through artistic means a philosophical position. Their first person narrative and fragmentary form is literary Expressionism, not to be mistaken for the author’s voice and personal experience, but to be read as the expression of a fictional creation. It’s this quality of spurious authenticity that gives these works their great power and status as works of fiction, or in the words of Jean Cocteau, ‘the lie that tells the truth.’

But there are also parallels in modern Chinese literature for the performance of authenticity. Notes of a Crocodile has much in common with the famous story by Ding Ling, The Diary of Miss Sophie, which also poses as diary/notes, and of course Lu Xun’s Diary of a Madman is another example. Confucius in his commentary on the Five Chinese Classics praised the three hundred poems in the Book of Songs as having thoughts never twisty. Modern Chinese literature on the contrary has always valued twisty thoughts – or unconventionalised soul baring - as a sign of authenticity with which writers can confront the artifice of the classical tradition. Wang Dan, the Tiananmin dissident, reveals this when he writes of Qiu Maiaojin’s work that its excruciating revelation of the author’s innermost self […] is after all what makes the magic of literature. What makes the magic of this particular novel is that Notes of a Crocodile ambiguates the boundary between authenticity and performance: it’s both notes and a novel about notes.

It’s this ambiguity, allowing us to read the novel as direct expression, and at the same as directed Expressionism, that has largely accounted for the status of Qiu Miaojin’s work on the Taiwanese cultural and literary scene. Winner of the Central Daily News Short Story Prize, the United Literature Association Award, and the China Times Honorary Prize for Literature, her work appears on college syllabuses, and is the subject of numerous dissertations. But amongst the general republic of readers she has inspired rock bands, pop songs, dance pieces, blog tributes, video tributes, internet discussion groups, and a feature length documentary. There is even a high school kid reading from her work on Youtube.

It’s hard to resist the temptation to allow the knowledge of her suicide at the age of 26 in Paris in 1995 to infect one’s reading of the text. In her last novel, Last Words from Montmartre, also published by NYRB Classics, the line between authenticity and performance is even more difficult to place. In that book the Rimbaud element is more to the fore, as translator Ali Larissa Heinrich notes in his excellent Afterword, and it’s virtually impossible to read it as anything other than as notes of a pathology, or as one long extended suicide note. Death and suicide does form a persistent minor whisper throughout the text of Notes of a Crocodile, but ultimately, Qiu Miaojin ends this work on a note of hope and uplift.

Admitting I have problems is a mode of optimism, since every problem has a solution. Unhappiness is a lot like bad weather; it’s out of your control. So if I encounter a problem that even death can’t solve, I shouldn’t care whether I’m happy or unhappy, thereby negating both the problem and the problem of a problem. And that is where happiness begins.

Monday, March 26, 2018

'Existence: A Story' David Hinton

We are looking at a painting by the great Ming Dynasty landscape artist and Chan Master Shi Tao: a scholar (with attendant) on a promontory gazing out over a sea of mist to ridges of hazy mountains in the distance. On the right of the picture is a poem by Shi Tao’s friend and associate, the poet Huang Yanlu, in Shi Tao’s calligraphy. The poem describes a ruined city: images of razed walls, deserted orchards and abandoned houses, none of which can be seen in the picture. From this disjunct between painting and poem, David Hinton begins his investigation of the spiritual roots of Chinese landscape painting, calligraphy and poetry.

Hinton sees the white space and multiple perspectives of Chinese landscape painting as a visual expression of the perpetual movement between Absence and Presence which, according to the first verse of the Dao De Jing, gives rise to the ten thousand things of mental and material phenomena. He reveals how this tension operates within Chinese characters – strokes organized around a void, within the sweeping gestures of calligraphy - in which a balance is sought between the being-in-the-moment of the movement of the brush and the residue of that movement/moment in the ink stroke left on the page. He also shows how classical Chinese grammar itself – with its absence of pronouns, verb tenses and deliberate ambiguity of syntax and word class - is also a manifestation of this dynamic interchange.

Along the way he makes some fascinating observations about the differences between Western languages and Chinese. Western languages impose a barrier between the things of the world and descriptions of them; at the same time as they describe the world, they try to transcend it. The relationship between words and things is arbitrary and mimetic, as Saussure and the Structuralists noted. In our creation myth, language comes before the world and the world is somehow a creation of language: And God said: ‘Let there be light’ and there was light. In the beginning was the Word, and so on. Chinese creation myths, on the other hand, begin with the hexagrams of the Yi Jing which represent every possible combination of ying and yang, and which rather than describe the particulars of reality, embody the deeper forces and processes of reality, Hinton writes. The clear division into noun and verb of Western languages imposes a fixity on the world that blinds us to its real nature as a process of perpetual impermanence. Whereas Chinese, in which words can be both neither noun or verb and both noun and verb, retains that fluidity and that awareness of the underlying processes of change.

Moreover, Chinese poetry, calligraphy and painting represent an attempt on the part of the practitioner to get behind the false dualities of Absence and Presence, ying and yang, observer and world, language and reality, to the fundamental essence that lies behind them, represented by the mysterious character xuan,  ‘dark enigma’ which also appears in the first verse of the Dao De Jing. Out of this dark enigma everything rises, and back into it everything sinks in a perpetual movement of becoming and passing. This is related to the Chan meditation practice of observing how thoughts come and go and in the process, stilling the everyday mind and letting the true mind 本心ben xin come forth. This true mind is our true nature, the true nature of reality, and which exists before all thoughts begin, and which precedes and underlies all duality, the true mind obscured by the fleeting dust of delusion, as the 5th century First Chan Patriarch Bodhidharma puts it in the Essence of Mahayana.

The book is fascinating, with a wealth of ideas to contemplate about language, translation issues, Chinese art and culture, the relationship between Daoism and Chan, the evolution of the Chinese writing system and the meaning of individual characters, the practice of calligraphy, dragons, the tumultuous history of the transition between Ming and Qing, the biography of Shi Tao. Along the way, Hinton offers us different, provisional translations of the poem in the painting, based on his and our evolving understanding of the deeper issues involved in bridging two widely differing cultures. It’s rather like being part of a translators workshop. What lifts the book above mere cultural commentary, however, is Hinton’s brave decision to use a prose style that reflects as nearly as possible what happens in Chan meditation. It’s one thing to be told that a painting and poem is a meditative practice, and quite another to become a part of that process itself, to be drawn in to the process by means of a style which is circular, elliptic, recursive, and poetic rather than academic, and which never tries to impose (a delusory) clarity of expression onto something that is ultimately inexpressible by means of language and that must be experienced personally. Many readers might be put off by this indirectness, but a reader who is also a meditator will instantly grasp what Hinton is trying to do.

The book is lavishly and beautifully produced by Shambhala, with a full color pull-out of the painting under discussion, 9 more full color plates of some of the greatest paintings in the genre, and copious black and white illustrations of details from those paintings, and examples of calligraphy. A singular and unclassifiable masterpiece by the greatest translator of Chinese poetry and philosophy of our age.

Friday, February 02, 2018

'Renegade, or Halo2' Timothy Mo

Globalisation, an American dictionary informs us, is ‘the removal of barriers between national economies to encourage the flow of goods, services, capital, and labor’. Well, in practice, of course, it means the rich countries of the West exporting and imposing their norms on everyone else, whether through language, legal inequalities, superior marketing nous or the always present threat of violence. This is the great theme of this stupendous novel by the British/Hong Kong writer Timothy Mo, who tells the truth of globalization as seen from the other end, from the bottom, so to speak, by one of Frantz Fanon’s ‘wretched of the earth.’

Rey, Castro or Sugar (the fact that he has a plethora of names is significant in itself) is a member of the Philippine underclass, the illegitimate son of a prostitute and an African American serviceman. We follow him from his wretched childhood in a Philippine slum, his membership of a street gang, his rescue and education at the hands of the Jesuits; his enrollment in college to study law and his developing talent for basketball. Rey is possessed of a hugely powerful physique, which makes him ideal for basketball, a game he says the Filipinos had no sane reason to take up. How could a short, wiry –fathers and mentors let me not be mealy mouthed – teeny-weeny, itsy-bitsy, chronically malnourished, genetically-disadvantaged South-East Asian folk ever have chosen a less appropriate endeavor by which to be measured?  He also has curiosity and a passion for reading, and forms a bond of intellectual friendship with one of the Fathers. Through his unwilling involvement in a crime he is forced into exile to escape the law; we follow his adventures as a chauffeur to a British expat family in Hong Kong, a travel-guide cum baby-sitter in Thailand; an indentured construction labourer in a fictional country on the Arabian peninsula, probably a composite of Kuwait, Saudi, Qatar or another of those appalling shitholes, a bodyguard on a business trip to Mumbai; a layabout in England, a layabout in Cuba, a long spell as a seaman on container ships on the high seas – the engine room of globalization - and after a brief spell in America, home again to the Philippines. Everywhere he goes in the underdeveloped world he is, as he says, a member of the international underclass who were the slaves of our century. And everywhere he goes he experiences himself as the outsider, the renegade, by virtue of the colour of his skin, his size and ability to handle himself, his intelligence and gift for observation, his peaceable temperament in the face of open hostility.

It’s through certain repeated images that Mo explores his themes of globalization, identity and aculturalisation. The most powerful appears in the first paragraph: the photographic negative. Isn’t the negative always more intriguing than the print? At one stage he encounters a group of Filipino albinos, at another, a group of coral divers, whose hair has been bleached and whose backs have been burnt black by the sun they too looked like the precursors of a photograph, or shadow relics of a nuclear blast. This is the flipside of globalization, the negative to the print. Another image is the halo, a type of desert, a many hued and multi-textured confection of ice-cream, cereals, neon syrups, crystalized fruits, frosty shavings, leguminous preserves and bloated pulses that you can find in different names all over South Asia. Images of other kinds of composites abound. Rey makes friends with a master huntsman, and he shows Rey his prize possession: a composite bow made of leather on one side and horn on the other: you got antagonistic forces working together just for you! It gets its power from putting together a whole assembly of parts that ain’t worth diddly on their own. Rey himself is both a negative and a halo.

It’s significant that the protagonist of the novel is Filipino, because that country is at once the most obvious victim of globalization, and at the same time a potent symbol of racial, religious and linguistic diversity. Rey, in his encounters with the wide array of people he meets, seems to be saying the real strength of globalization is in the diversity with unity it can bring. He recognizes that people are formed as much by their context as by their essence. He learns from the Jesuits how to decode things he doesn’t at first understand from their context, and everyone he meets has been taken out of their context and placed in a new one. In such a decontextualized world, all values become relative: Commander Smith’s virtues, those absolutes I had been disposed to worship, I was starting to see as relatives, as part of my own Philippine family of vices. They were only successful in their own context, in a better society.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the linguistic energy of the novel, and this is its chief strength and originality. There are frequent puns (the word halo is tremendously fruitful in this regard) and meditations on language. I reckon Philipino would look a whole lot better than Filipino, a spelling demeaning in itself, while sounding just the same. I mean you’ve got Philosophy, Philology, Physiology (and I admit, Phlegm) as against Fuck, Fart and Fool. Rey tells his story himself, infusing his language with Filipino street slang in Cebuano, Visayan, Tagalog, themselves types of bastardised Spanish, one of the lingua francas of the developing world. He can veer from high literary English to curses and imprecations in Taglish (or Bislish if you like), and he knowingly and wittily references high European culture: happy ships were happy in different ways, di ba, but unhappy ships were unhappy in different ways, siguro. He also uses words like cunctatory (yes, I had to look it up too), and has read Dickens, Haklyutt, Hobbes, and the novel has obvious nods to Smollett and Conrad.

The great danger of globalisation, culturally, is that it imposes a ghastly kind of uniformity on everything, where everyone shares the values of the dominant culture, and smaller cultures are absorbed into what the cultural theorist Victor Segalen called the beige paste of entropy. You can see this process happening in the critical response to the novel. British critics accused Mo of peddling in stereotypes, but Mo and his alter ego Rey recognize that stereotypes play an important part in understanding how people operate out of their context: they work as a convenience, a first impression, as long as one is prepared to change ones mind on further acquaintance with reality. The novel preempts those critics who are more concerned with virtue-signaling their awareness of the stereotypes of racial prejudice than in squarely facing the fact that there does exist racial difference, and that cultures are relatively superior or inferior. I also believe the degree to which you discern or suspect prejudice against yourself or your kind is the measure of the prejudice in yourself. Those who inveigh the most vehemently are those who hate the most. An early but central scene involves a gang rape and murder, and Mo came under a lot of criticism for including this scene. But those who criticise the work for this are only shooting the messenger. Mo is describing the reality of the world that exists outside the context of the comfortable world of the literary critic or Western reader. In the East the placid poor lived in terror of the violent rich. In the West the rich lived in terror of the criminal poor. Unlike the critics, he is not mealy-mouthed about that reality. Unlike them he does not make the mistake of assuming that other parts of the world share the same values, and does not fall victim to the stultifying myth of cultural uniformity.

Mo has fallen off the radar a bit since his early high visibility with the Booker Prize nominated The Monkey King, Sour Sweet and his excellent historical novel about Hong Kong An Insular Possession, although rumours that he is ‘missing’ are surely exaggerated (the same exaggeration that Thomas Pynchon is a ‘recluse’). It’s just that he’s not attending literary cocktail parties in London. He reportedly turned down an advance from Random House in the mid 90s, not because it wasn’t big enough, as it has been unkindly suggested, but because one assumes he was chafing under the kind of editorial control that results in the usual, careful, anodyne, taupe prose that graduates of creative writing programs produce nowadays. By starting his own imprint, and publishing this work under it, Mo has escaped this kind of editorial interference, thankfully. It’s hard to believe that a novel of this linguistic scope, ambition and brilliance, and the taboo-breaking scenes of sex and violence that it contains would be accepted by one of the mainstream houses today. And yet there is nothing amateurish or ‘vanity published’ about this highly accomplished and finely-wrought novel. The only drawback is that by removing himself from the publishing industry in this way his novels have not had the coverage and distribution that would bring them to a wider readership, which is a tremendous shame, as this work in particular, 20 years after it first appeared, has a lot to teach complacent Western readers about the world outside their purview. With his kind of halo prose, and by moving the bildungsroman and picaresque away from the centres of tradition to marginal characters and the post-colonial world – the new centre, Mo has infused the English language and the English novel with new vigour and vitality.

Monday, December 11, 2017

'The Street of Crocodiles' Bruno Schulz

It’s not often I find myself agreeing with Jonathan Safran Foer (it’s not often I find anything he says interesting enough to take issue with either way, but that’s beside the point), but when he says he loved this book but didn’t like it, I kind of know what he means.

There’s no doubt that Shulz could write: sentences of limpid beauty (miraculously translated by Celina Wieniewska) and insight follow each other down the street of crocodiles, and images are as startling and as unforgettable as a Chagall painting, but there’s a sense of disorientation about the whole thing, and one is simply unsure how to read it: as surrealism? As dream diary? As childhood reminiscences? As magical realism? As naïve art? This uncertainty is a mark of Schulz’s huge originality. There is nothing quite like him in Western literature and it’s hard to orient his work into some ready made genre. Bloom wrote that works of genius assimilate us by their strangeness, and perhaps that gives a key here. Undoubtedly strange and original, and quite possibly a work of genius, Schulz’s stories do not ultimately assimilate us.

Perhaps it’s the fact that they are all rather the same, and reading them is like seeing the same object again and again from only slightly different perspectives. There’s a feeling of claustrophobic entrapment in his world, but it’s a world where the borders are always melting away into uncertainty. Just at the edge of sight there’s a rather unsettling blur, as if the veil of reality has become threadbare at that point.

Perhaps it’s the way that one of his main themes is the often overwhelming boredom of childhood, especially on long, stultifying summer days. Schulz is a master at describing intangibles such as the way time sometimes just simply hangs; or the peculiar blend of nostalgia and renewed hope for the future which seems to permeate the atmosphere of an autumn landscape.

Perhaps it’s the overegging of the metaphors. Nothing is ever just simply itself. Schulz’s characteristic move is to mash two unrelated symbolic fields together. Here he describes his father’s haberdashery shop, combining the discourse of armies and logistics with a purely descriptive vocabulary:

My father walked along these arsenals of autumn goods and calmed and soothed the rising force of these masses of cloth, the power of the season. He wanted to keep intact for as long as possible those reserves of stored colour. He was afraid to break into that iron fund of autumn, to change it into cash.

Or perhaps it’s the way inanimate objects are symbolically brought to life (Dickens is Schulz great precursor here):

While he was opening the heavy ironclad door, the grumbling dusk took a step back from the entrance, moved a few inches deeper, changed position and lay down again inside… 

These things are all very well and good, and indeed contain much beauty and truth in them, and they are handled by Schulz to great effect. But, as the narrator remarks towards the end of the story Autumn:  

Finding no surcease in reality, you created a superstructure out of the figurative stuff of metaphor, you moved among associations and allusions, the imponderables between things. All things referred to other things, which in turn called further things to witness, and so on. In the end your honeyed words grew cloying...

And that there is exactly how I felt reading him. Reading Shulz is rather like being stuck in someone else’s dream. But as Auden so wisely warned, nothing is more boring than hearing about other people’s dreams. Schulz’s genius is perhaps best appreciated in very small, concentrated doses, like the raspberry syrup he adores. But a whole flagon of the stuff leaves one feeling slightly queasy and quailing at the idea of taking any more.

The Book is a myth in which we believe when we are young, but which we cease to take seriously as get older.