Books

Submission- book review

I don’t read too many French or European novels, though I should. Michel Houellebecq’s Submission is one such French book and it is a stunning novel that explores the possibility of an Islamist party winning the presidential election in France. It is the first book I’ve ever read from Houellebecq, arguably France’s most famous novelists and probably the most controversial too.

In 2022 France, the protagonist Francoise, a literature lecturer at Paris III-Sorbonne, is living a steady but somewhat empty life. He is respected in his profession as an expert on a 19th-century French writer and has affairs with students. However, he has a pessimistic and misanthropic approach towards life and its conventions such as religion and marriage. As the presidential election looms, an Islamic candidate gains significant support, and after he wins, France finds its educational and social systems altered, and Francoise is forced to consider a major life change.
Suffice it to say, the question of the French core identity is challenged by the outcome of the election. However, the significance of this political possibility was slightly offset by Francoise’s personal struggles to find himself so the effect was not as powerful for me.

While I’m not a Frenchman and I don’t live in a society with a lot of Muslims, I can understand why Submission would court some controversy. Submission does address Islamophobia concerns by presenting a future with an Islamic control at the highest level. For a country like France which is historically Christian but has a large Muslim minority, questions over how much to accommodate Islam is a major issue, such as the banning of niqabs (full face covering worn by some female Muslims) in public.

However, Islam is not the main target but France’s mainstream politicians and academic institutions. The Islamist candidate is actually a reasonable-sounding but driven individual who is not an extremist or radical firebrand. The issue posed by the author is about the decline of mainstream parties, the result of which is that only far-right candidates like Marie Le Pen, who in real life lost the presidential elections this year, and the Islamist candidate can galvanize the public.

The novel is not very long at less than 250 pages but that is enough to produce a blunt and slightly chilling effect. Not just because of the shock and repercussions of an Islamist in power, but the personal change undertaken by Francoise that completely goes against the fundamentals of his character.

Books

Night of the Golden Butterfly and This is How You Lose Her- book reviews

As the fifth of Tariq Ali’s Islamic Quintet of novels, The Night of the Golden Butterfly is the most contemporary one, taking place in 20th and 21st century Pakistan and England, as well as China. The story starts when a famous but mysterious Pakistani painter Plato asks his childhood friend, novelist Dara, as a special favor, to write about his life for his lover. Hailing from Lahore, Plato and Dara met during the latter’s university years in the 1960s and developed a friendship while ruminating over politics and philosophy. The latter would come to fall in love with a Chinese-Pakistani, Jindie, the sister of their friend and the “Golden Butterfly” of the book’s title, who ends up marrying another of their friends. Jindie harbors a fascinating ancestral origin, being the descendant of a Yunnan Hui sultan who rose up against the Qing emperor in late-19th century China. The sultan’s defeat drives Jindie’s ancestor to flee Yunnan and eventually Pakistan.

Decades after their university years in Pakistan, Dara, Plato and Jindie have all immigrated to the US and England, but still stay in touch with events in an increasingly unstable Pakistan, which has uneasy relations with the Taliban, which part of its military tacitly supported (as most people know now, Osama bin Laden was killed while “hiding out” in a Pakistani military town). The problems in their homeland catch up to Dara and his Pakistani friends in the West in the form of “Naughty,” a former socialite and ex-wife of a corrupt Pakistani military officer, who flees to and gains fame in Europe as a liberal Muslim woman who openly criticizes Islam and was implicated in a murder and sex scandal involving Pakistani army generals. While the story meanders a lot, going from Pakistan to the West and to China, it is an entertaining read that cleverly mocks liberalism, art, religion, especially radical Islam, and Pakistan.

 

This is How You Lose Her is a collection of short stories from Junot Diaz, whose The Wondrous Life of Oscar Diaz is one of the bluntest, raw and profane novels I’ve ever read. As with the novel, the protagonist of these short stories is a Dominican-American guy from a working-class background. As the title suggests, the stories are all, except one, about the opposite sex. In several of them, the protagonist features his family, especially his womanizing older brother. They are a bit raunchy and profane, in keeping with Diaz’s literary style, which is like someone talking. Most of them feature sorrowful or wistful endings, which I suppose is the main point, to portray the joy and fickleness of love and passion.

Books

Everything Belongs To Us- book review

I like to read novels set in Asian countries, such as India, China, Myanmar, and even Malaysia. Now I can add South Korea to that list after having read Everything Belongs to Us, a coming-of-age novel about three young Korean university students in Seoul living under military dictatorship in the late 70s back when the country was still poor. I reviewed it for the Asian Review of Books, which forms most of my post below, with a few slight changes.

South Korea was not always a prosperous, democratic and cutting-edge country. In the seventies, it was poor and ruled by a harsh authoritarian regime desperate to catch up with the West while cracking down on any form of public dissent. 

Namin, Jisun and Sunam are students at Seoul National University, the best school in the nation. Graduation means an almost guaranteed life of lucrative employment, connections and advancement. For Jisun, the daughter of one of the country’s richest tycoons, this life of privilege is exactly what she hates. But for her friend Namin, the daughter of street-food vendors, it is everything, though not for purely materialistic reasons. In between is Sunam, who desperately wants to climb the school’s social ladder by becoming a member of the Circle, a campus secret society. He soon falls for Namin and starts dating her. But their relationship becomes complicated as their contrasting backgrounds and ambitions clash.

The students’ personal struggles take place amid stark societal problems such as violent factory worker protests, a clandestine Christian activist network trying to agitate for workers, and the sad fate of Namin’s bitter older sister who leaves her factory job to work in a red light district and gets pregnant by an American GI who later leaves her. The latter brings the starkness of poverty to the fore, especially when she then leaves her baby with Namin’s sister. These disparate elements are not explored very deeply but mesh together to form a subdued background. Sometimes, it seems as if too much is going on and some plot elements such as the Circle are introduced then discarded; the narrative might have benefited from a tighter focus on the more central elements.

The settings vary from Namin’s working-class sparse home to Jisun’s ultra-wealthy household, but they are still subject to the same forces that dominate society. Under President Park Chung-hee—the father of the recent female president who was just impeached—South Korea is a rigid, conservative nation that has forsaken personal liberties for economic growth and prohibited dissent. While Namin is constrained by these stifling norms, Jisun actively pushes against them. All this works to create an intriguing story, especially as it is never apparent whether Namin or Jisun will prevail in their respective challenges.

The historical context is notable, not just because it is a particularly precarious time during the country’s economic development, but also because there are very few English-language novels set in South Korea and not about the Korean War. As such, the novel provides a welcome glimpse into a country that is still not that well-known or portrayed in the West except for its electronics brands.

Wuertz’s female protagonists are strong and driven; but the male characters, however, are flimsy and superficial. Sunam has little going for him, other than being a good player of baduk, also known as go. It is unclear why both main female characters are drawn intently to him and at times, this mars the storyline. Other male characters, such as Juno, Sunam’s supposed mentor, and the American missionary, Peter, play a very minor role or act mostly as a foil for Jisun. In fact the latter starts off as a love interest for Jisun, but by the end is reduced to begging her for money for a legal case.

The more memorable male characters are minor ones such as Namin’s brother whose cerebral palsy caused him to be sent to be raised by their grandparents in the countryside, and Sunam’s controlling, tycoon father. The former is a major reason for Namin’s incredible drive for trying to advance herself at school as she has a dream of getting rich and buying a large house that she and her brother can live in.

Nevertheless, Namin and Jisun are compelling characters that deservedly soak up most of the attention. Together, they drive a worthy literary debut in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Books

Article 66- book review

I used to read a lot of Star Wars novels back when I was younger, but Article 66 is the first I’ve read in a long time. The name refers to the infamous order given by Chancellor Palpatine (who becomes the Emperor) to clone troopers to kill off their Jedi officers during the Clone Wars in the Revenge of the Sith movie. Basically that is how the Jedi were wiped out, barring a handful such as Obi-Wan Kenobi, who fled into exile. But Article 66 isn’t actually on this tragic event, but centers on a bunch of clone commandos and their former trainer and father figure, Mandalorian warrior Kal Skirata, during the war against the Separatists.

Skirata has his doubts over the ongoing war, which is looking increasingly pointless and making his troops’ sacrifices futile. As a result, he’s hatched a master plan to take his troops out of it and spirit them to a distant planet. With the aid of a Jedi and a former Jedi turned mercenary, he has unearthed information that leads him to think the chancellor is creating a secret navy and army for personal reasons, while concentrating power into his hands by exaggerating the threat from the Separatists.

A major part of the story is the humanity of the clones, who despite being bred as fighting machines in a completely artificial and enclosed environment, are able to think and feel human emotions, including love, friendship, compassion, jealousy and anger. There are a couple of human-clone and alien-clone relationships, to amplify this point. This is a concept that goes beyond the scope of a normal Star Wars novel, which one could apply to the idea of clones, which obviously don’t exist in real-life yet, in general.

Questions and doubts are raised about the Jedi, who in the Star Wars universe are held up as noble and infallible warrior-monks, and provides a clue about how they became so vulnerable to their eventual demise.

The novel also raises interesting points about war and its cynical exploitation by politicians to concentrate power, such as the use of misinformation and vague threats to ramp up the fear of civilians, that exist in real life (see parallels with terrorism and the question of how far to restrict civil liberties in the name of security). But it does so in a rather natural way that lets the reader gradually understand it, rather than blunt preaching.

Article 66 is a very compelling novel though readers who aren’t into Star Wars and/or science fiction can give this a pass.

Books · China

Flood of Fire- book review

The Opium War is one of the most famous episodes in modern Chinese history, being the moment when China realized how feeble it was compared to the British who thrashed it in battle and forced it to open up its ports to Western traders. This came as a rude shock, putting it mildly, to the Chinese and their ruling Manchurian Qing Dynasty, and even after well over one and a half centuries, it still hasn’t been forgotten by the Chinese. Hong Kong owes its existence and prosperity to this war, because it was officially handed over to the British after the war under whom it changed from a small fishing village to the financial hub it is today.

Flood of Fire is the third and final book in Amitav Ghosh’s epic Opium War trilogy that spans India and China and features an eclectic cast of Indian, Chinese and British characters. The book sees the outbreak of the Opium War as the British launch an attack on the ruling Qing Dynasty over its ban on opium imports. As Guangdong is attacked, Hong Kong is captured and the Qing are humbled by the British navy and army, characters on all sides strive to exploit their differing situations. There are Parsi businessmen, British merchants and officers, an American sailor, Bengali soldiers, Chinese Tanka boat people, and Cantonese.

The trilogy began with a ship, the Ibis, which set sail from India in the mid-19th century with a diverse group on board, including runaways, fugitives and nobles, who dispersed after a mutiny mid-voyage. The bulk of these characters made their way to Hong Kong and Guangdong, which by then was the only point of exchange between Western merchants and China. Opium was the main import from Western and Indian businessmen, which as most of us know, caused a lot of anger among Chinese officials. But that is because many Chinese enjoyed this narcotic so much that addiction became a scourge (something that few Chinese accept responsibility for). A powerful Chinese official, Lin Zexu, (who is revered as a national hero in modern China) soon orders a ban on opium imports and burns a huge load of opium in public, bringing about hostilities that lead to a declaration of war from the British.

With such a large cast, it can be confusing at times, especially as there are several plotlines going on simultaneously, involving both sides. But most of these plots are interesting enough, though the conclusion ties them together a bit too neatly.

Indian-born Bengali Amitav Ghosh is probably my favorite novelist after I read Glass Palace, one of his novels which spanned Burma and India during the British colonial period. Ghosh has a gift for writing sweeping novels set across different but places, especially South Asia, during major historical events like the Opium War in this case, Partition (of British India into India and Pakistan), and the conquest of Burma by the British. Other books of his that I’ve enjoyed include Hungry Tide, a contemporary novel about a scientist studying Bangladesh’s vast Sundurban wetland, and this Opium War trilogy. His most recent book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable is not a novel, but a work of non-fiction, examining how climate change threaten a lot of countries, especially through global warming and unpredictable weather changes such as rising sea levels that can put coastal cities and settlements at risks.

Books

NW- book review

A woman in apparent distress desperately knocks on the doors of homes in a northwestern London neighborhood. Leah Cooper opens the door, then thinks nothing of helping the wretched woman by letting her in, hearing her out, and then giving her 30 pounds so she can take a cab to the hospital to see her sick mother. Afterwards, it turns out the woman is a liar and Leah has been scammed. And with this dramatic and bewildering episode, NW begins, taking us into the lives of several northwest Londoners.

Leah is an NGO staffer with an outspoken Irish mother and a African-French husband; her best friend Natalie, formerly Keisha, is an ambitious lawyer; and then Felix is a former addict who has been through some tough times but is trying to put that behind him. Connecting them all is their origin from the same working-class NW London neighborhood in a rough part of London, where public housing estates of blocks have walkways and “lifts that were to be avoided almost as soon as they were built.” Not surprisingly, they have all tried to escape their working-class roots with Natalie/Keisha being the most successful at first glance. Married to a charming but vain Trinidadian-Italian banker with two children with a nice house and a successful career, she has it all or at least it seems so.

NW is divided into several sections, each written in a different style and focusing on a different character. It is confusing and I wasn’t too comfortable with the obvious inconsistencies and disjointed effect when you go from one part to another. One entire section consists of 185 (not a typo) numbered segments, each one a bit of Natalie/Keisha’s past and which lead up to a surprising finale. Meanwhile, the most interesting section has a tragic conclusion that is linked to another section in something that, to me, is not very clear.

The book’s complexity and inconsistent tone mirrors real life, while providing a stirring reminder that even supposedly ordinary lives are interesting if one dives into the details and background. Things do not always work out as you would hope, the past is not always easily put behind oneself, and sometimes life is unfair. These aren’t exactly mysteries but NW puts a human face on them. Race, class and where one grows up all matter, and Smith portrays these in an intimate and pained manner through the characters’ struggles and clashes. But, I don’t think I can agree with the underlying notion that people cannot escape their past regardless of how hard they try. If that is indeed true, then society is even more bleak than what we . At the same time, the book is entirely set in London so some of the circumstances are inevitably unique to London and English society and not applicable to everywhere.

It may not be to everyone’s liking but NW is certainly a memorable novel.

Books · Hong Kong

The Expatriates- book review

The title alone should provide a strong clue that The Expatriates may be set in Hong Kong but isn’t exactly about Hong Kong. But in keeping with Hong Kong, the expats in question aren’t your regular entrepreneur, copy editor or English teacher as in many other Asian countries but the ones on fancy expat packages, living a charmed life in mansions with Filipino maids/nannies/cooks, and high-end dining and yacht/junk jaunts. On the one hand, it is about privileged Western (mostly white), American expats living it up in Hong Kong, but on the other, it is a story with more substance than you’d expect.

When it begins, we are introduced to the three protagonists, two of whom mask a tragic secret which surprisingly is soon revealed. Consequently, the plot drags a little in the middle, but it does pick up towards the end and builds towards what could have been a predictable ending, but instead turns into a surprising finale.

The three main characters are American women at different stages of their lives whose fate is tied together by very unfortunate circumstances. One is a young, Korean-American, Columbia grad, another is a mom of young kids, and the third is a childless wife whose marriage seems to lack more than just children. At times, the details of the pampered lives of these well-to-do expats seem obscene, being something that is miles away from our lives, not to mention the poor and working class in Hong Kong. But rather than glorify the lives of those expats, it actually almost makes us feel a little sorry, but just a little. There is a very self-aware tone throughout the narrative about feeling as if one is putting your real life on hold and not being in reality, which is true when one has a 24-hour maid who caters for your every whim. But of course, this also reflects a major disparity between the lives of the characters in this book and  the more common expat life, which is that of putting up with greater challenges and hardships than you would face at home.

The funny thing about Hong Kong is that, as tiny as it is, it can sometimes seem like it comprises two very distinct worlds. This book is only about one of them, and even then, only a small segment of this world, specifically the highest-paid expats, the ones who could live in houses and actually not even have to pay for them. Add in the fact that pretty much most of the main characters are American expats, with nary an Englishman or Australian in sight, and one could wonder how much of this actually bears any relevance to most people living in Hong Kong. But yet, somehow the story is interesting enough, the details dramatic and the plot intriguing for the most part. It is a credit to the author, a Korean-American who was born and grew up in Hong Kong.

Books

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage- book review

My last book review was about my first Orhan Pamuk novel and this one about Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is my first Haruki Murakami novel. It’s not like I never heard of this famous Japanese writer, but I just never got around to getting a hold of one of his books.

Tsukuru Tazaki is a 30-something engineer who designs train stations in Tokyo and lives a fairly simple and somewhat dull but satisfying life. But in his teen years in high school in Nagoya, he had a fantastic friendship with four others, two guys and two girls, during which they basically spent time only with each other. They were so close they never cultivated friends with others nor did they even date anyone, because they didn’t want to break the group by bring in outsiders or changing the friendship dynamic if they dated each other. However after going to Tokyo for university, on a trip back to Nagoya, Tsukuru suddenly gets a call from one of his friends telling him to stay away and to never contact them again. Tsukuru is so stunned he accepts it without questions and from then on, never sees them. While this weighs on his mind, he cannot bear to figure out why it happened. However, now in his 30s, his girlfriend senses that the sudden breakup and ostracisation still haunts Tsukuru and she urges him to find out the reason why it happened, by confronting those former friends.

It says something about Murakami that while Tsukuru may live up to his “colorless” description, which he agrees with but actually stems from the fact all four of his ex-friends have colours in part of their surnames while he doesn’t, the story is still compelling enough to keep you entranced to find out just what was the reason for Tsukuru’s expulsion. However, while Tsukuru’s life may seem a little sad and empty, he has come to accept it and even when he was part of the group, he felt like an interloper at times, being self-conscious of his unremarkable personality. The melancholy mood of the story is softened by the key presence of music and art, from the piano piece favored both by a college friend and one of his former female friends to the pottery created by another one of his female ex-friends after her school years.

I won’t give away the rest of the plot, but I will say the reason was shocking and disturbing, and that in a sense, it did not resolve some of the underlying issues. Eventually, Tsukuru comes to understand that their five-person friendship was not healthy in some ways, for instance, the existence of pent-up romantic urges, though this could not be blamed solely on him, and may have contributed to the break-up. Tsukuru also gets a surprising revelation from one of his former friends about his own character which played a part in the breakup. It is significant that “colorless” Tsukuru was the only one among the group to leave Nagoya to go to university despite his reserved and unremarkable personality, showing sometimes breaking your comfort zone can involve doing something as simple as going to study away from your hometown. This also probably contributed to his eventual expulsion from the group of tightly knit friends.
There are a number of lessons one can draw from Tsukuru and his experience, including that human relations can be fickle and something which may seem strong can suddenly be ended seemingly without any warning. The ending may not be so conclusive either, which fits with the gray and ambivalent overarching theme of Tsukuru’s life.

Books

A Strangeness in My Mind- book review

A Strangeness in My Mind, which can also be an apt description of my mind at times, by Orhan Pamuk is a hefty almost 800-pager novel about the life of an Istanbul boza seller Mevlut. While the book is ostensibly about Mevlut’s life story from childhood to watching his own children marry, in reality, it is also about Istanbul, the famed city on the Bosphorus which is as much a character in the novel as Mevlut.

I’ve never read a book by Pamuk before, though I’ve read a lot of good things about the 2006 Nobel Literature Prize winner. All I can say is I was not disappointed.

A Strangeness in My Mind starts off with Mevlut’s elopement with his future wife Reyiha from his childhood village as they tear through a forest in the dark to escape with his cousin to Istanbul. Having written love letters to Reyiha for two years after first spotting her at a wedding, Mevlut is filled with elation and anticipation. On the way Mevlut realizes a potentially astonishing mistake, but decides to live with it and bear the consequences. Some of you may be able to figure out what happened from what I wrote. But yet, this mixup does not play as a big a part in Mevlut’s story as you’d expect. The book is written in both third-person narrative and first-person accounts from the various characters except for Mevlut himself.

The book is divided into sections corresponding to stages in Mevlut’s life over four decades from 1969-2012, and after the elopement above, goes back to his youth years. Having come to Istanbul as a youth to help his father sell yogurt on the streets, Mevlut flunks high school and fails to get into university and settles down to a life of hard toil like his father. But while he goes through a series of jobs waiting tables or selling food on the streets as an illegal vendor, Mevlut is not filled with bitterness or disappointment. There’s a charm about his naivete and humility, which manifests itself in his lasting desire to sell boza, a slightly alcoholic fermented wheat drink, on the streets at night, regardless of whatever his day job is. It is not an easy or admirable job, and at the same, fewer  people engage in it as the popularity of beer and wine seemngly make boza obsolete, which is why Mevlut’s nightly wanderings often provoke nostalgia among residents of the areas he sells in and he is never unable to find customers.

At the same time as Mevlut grows up, the city of Istanbul develops into a wider, larger, noisier and more bustling metropolis, with more people coming every year from all over the country, mirroring the fate of large cities around the world. Pamuk clearly knows his native city and he writes about it with much tenderness and detail, describing the various neighborhoods and districts right down to their characters. Pamuk makes us familiar with Duteppe and Kulteppe and the Ghazni Quarter . Real-life events like coups, crackdowns and political gang warfare also feature in the story, giving us a taste of Turkish political turbulence, some of which was echoed recently earlier this year with the “coup” that was quickly ended by the government.

The irony is that Mevlut’s life is not very eventful and actually quite simple, whereas in contrast, his friend Ferhat, a former socialist, and his wily and troublesome cousins are more interesting characters. Making things more complicated are the wives of Mevlut and his cousin Korkut, who are sisters and their beautiful sibling, who plays a major but understated role in the story. However, despite the mix-up that happened at the beginning, Mevlut comes to realize that the result is all he needs. A Strangeness in My Mind may have felt a little banal in some parts, but overall it is an absolutely engrossing story about love, devotion, perseverance, humility and of course, Istanbul.

Books

And the Mountains Echoed- book review

Starting off in Afghanistan, as is par for a Khaled Hosseini novel, And the Mountains Echoed continues in France, Greece and the US. Two young siblings from a poor rural family travel with their father to Kabul to visit their uncle, and from that innocuous beginning flows a tale of unceasing sorrow and disappointment that combines personal tragedy with Afghanistan’s troubles.
I’ve read at least one of Hosseini’s previous novels and I do find them enjoyable and touching, but I found that in this book, Hosseini uses narrative descriptions about the past too much and as a result, there is not too much action going on. Whether it be letters, interviews or characters reminiscing about their past, this is the bulk of the story. The result is that the story loses some of its original impact after the shocking event at the start, as the plot becomes a bit diluted with more characters introduced and moves on to several different countries, not to mention decades. Besides the Afghans at the beginning, there are American-Afghan members of the diaspora, a Greek surgeon, and a wealthy Afghan boy whose slowly realizes his isolated childhood is a reflection of his father’s dubious profession. The characters are all interconnected through the fateful beginning in Afghanistan through a widening and interconnected multilayered web.

Of course, some people may like this, as the complexity of the plot enables readers to be able to view events from differing perspectives and know that as with life, oftentimes, nothing is ever black and white. In this, And the Mountains Echoed strikes a contrast with Hosseini’s previous novels where it was very clear who the guilty parties were.
In this book, there is cruelty and compassion, and then, with the heartbreaking act at the start, a combination of both. Most of the characters, whether it be the poor father or the free-spirited beauty who settles down reluctantly into a loveless sham marriage or the dutiful American-born daughter who gives up her art scholarship to stay with her family, have suffered a lot, which amply reflects the complexity and unceasing hardship of Afghanistan.