“We’ve all heard that a million monkeys banging on a million typewriters will eventually reproduce the entire works of Shakespeare. Now, thanks to the Internet, we know this is not true.” (Robert Wilensky)

Gong Hei Fat Choi! Happy New Year of the Fire Monkey! To celebrate the start of the Lunar New Year I thought I would look at writers from cultures and countries outside of China that also widely celebrate this event: a Hong-Kong born writer’s Philippines-set novel, and a Japanese writer, as the interwebs tell me Japan celebrates both the Gregorian and Lunar new years.  These will also be two more stops on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit.

Fire Monkey - this is going to be your year, my simian friend

Fire Monkey – this is going to be your year, my simian friend

Image from here

Firstly, Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard by Timothy Mo (1995). I picked this up because it was enthusiastically recommended  in a lecture I attended on post-colonial literature. Brownout is set primarily in the Philippines, in the fictional city of Gobernador de Leon, where Victoria Init, admirer of Imelda Marcos, strives to extend her congressman husband’s power.

“Rubbish carts too dilapidated to carry the neat and frugal household wastes of Osaka had come from Japan; schoolbuses no longer fit to carry Korean children from Seoul; traffic lights , too laconic to blink longer at the soldierly traffic in Wellington would glare defeasance implacably red-eyed at the escaped lunatics behind the steering wheels of the Gobernador de Leon jeepneys. Traffic was absurdly heavy…you would stay in the same place a maximum of five minute before creeping on again…So what if it was only inches? Advance was cumulative; the achievement slow but palpable. In short, at the end of it you had made progress. Progress was Victoria Init’s idol. She would sacrifice everything and everyone at the feet of that stern shibboleth”

The second part of the novel deals with a conference of academics coming to the city, through which Mo is able to extend the portrait of corruption flourishing in the face of lazy indifference and self-interest far beyond the politicking Inits and a toothless journalist named Boyet. The visiting intellectuals have no understanding, wrapped up as they are in their own tiny worlds. Some are overtly derogatory to other cultures, others restraining themselves to sweeping racism:

“Filipinos don’t actually have a colonial chip on their shoulder…The ordinary pinoy likes America and Americans, in fact there’s nothing he’d like better than to be one. And as for the language of the oppressor issue, Holy Moses, they grow up speaking English. It’s as natural to them as…”

I think it speaks volumes that the sentence is unfinished by the speaker. As a satire Brownout doesn’t entirely work – there’s not really a character to care about, to anchor the narrative to or throw the corruption into sharp relief.  It’s a novel filled with characters, a broad portrait that for me could have done with being a little deeper.  However, Mo is a highly skilled writer and, as my lecturer suggested, Brownout is certainly interesting from a post-colonial point of view. It didn’t wholly capture me but I enjoyed it enough that it makes it onto this blog, where I only write about books I recommend.


Image from here

Secondly, The Diving Pool by prolific Japanese writer Yoko Ogawa (trans. Stephen Snyder), a collection of three stories written in a beautiful, spare style. In the deeply unsettling titular story a young girl falls in love with her foster brother:

“Sometimes I wish I could describe how wonderful I feel in those few seconds from time he spreads his arms above his head, as if trying to grab hold of something, to the instant he vanishes into the water. But I never can find the right words. Perhaps it’s because he’s falling through time, to a place where words can never reach.”

The narrator lives with a large extended family where she is the only biological child.

“I can never hear the words ‘family’ and ‘home’ without feeling that they sound strange, never simply hear them and let them go. When I stop to examine them, though, the words seem hollow, seem to rattle at my feet like empty cans.”

It’s quite a feat that for a precise, beautifully eloquent writer such as Ogawa, she makes what is left unsaid and unacknowledged the dominant theme of the collection. The girl in The Diving Pool carries out horrible acts of cruelty without really knowing why; in Pregnancy Diary, a young woman is mesmerised and yet alienated by her sister’s pregnancy:

“I wonder how she broke the news to her husband. I don’t really know what they talk about when I’m not around. In fact, I don’t really understand couples at all. They seem like some sort inexplicable gaseous body to me – a shapeless, colourless, unintelligible thing trapped in a laboratory beaker.”

Again, the narrator does not behave well, indeed, behaves in a shocking way, with quiet malice. The inarticulate nature of the narrators makes their behaviour all the more unsettling, as it is presented through simple statements of fact, unadorned and unjustified.

In the final story, Dormitory, a young woman returns to the dorm building she stayed in as a student:

“I would hear it for the briefest moment whenever my thoughts returned to the dormitory. The world in my head would become white, like a wide, snow-covered plain, and from somewhere high up in the sky, the faint vibration began…I never knew how to describe it. Still, from time to time I attempted analogies: the icy murmur of a fountain in winter when a coin sinks to the bottom; the quaking of the fluid in the inner ear as you get off a merry-go-round; the sound of night passing through the palm of your hand still gripping the phone after your lover hangs up…”

Ogawa is a stunning writer, and in this final story, rather than a psychologically disturbed protagonist, she unsettles the reader by leading them down a well-worn narrative route, before abruptly destabilising it with a surreal and astonishing final image. Highly recommended.

20 thoughts on ““We’ve all heard that a million monkeys banging on a million typewriters will eventually reproduce the entire works of Shakespeare. Now, thanks to the Internet, we know this is not true.” (Robert Wilensky)

  1. The Diving Pool sounds wonderful, and disturbing, and in the time between reading the post and commenting I have ordered a copy, with an equally disturbing close-up of a non-cute bee on the cover. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great reviews Madame Bibi! Having arrived in Mongolia via the Trans-Siberian Express, I fancy staying awhile and making my way south and east through China and beyond rather than hopping on a plane to somewhere across the globe, so both of these sound like great candidates for my travels.

    Oh, and I that fire monkey is a cutie, although he reminds me a little too much of the time I tried to bleach my dark brown hair blonde. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Happy travels Sarah! Now you mention it, the monkey does remind me of a time I tried to put red streaks in my brown hair, and somehow ended up with white roots and black ends, with random red in some of the middle – good to know I’m not alone in these disasters!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The Diving Pools sounds wonderful! I love the quotes. I feel this may be a temptation too far… but fortunately I’m not very tempted by the other one! I wonder if I could trade the cats in for a fire monkey…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. You’re ripping through that Around the World reading challenge!

    Great choice of topic. I’m always surprised by the fact that there is a very limited choice of books from Asian authors available in Australia – you would think that, given our proximity, we would perhaps get a decent selection. Not really so – on the whole, I think they’re under-represented. The only book that garnered any profile in the last six months was Beauty is a Wound (and even that wasn’t prominently displayed in mainstream book shops).

    The Diving Pool sounds excellent.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, it’s going better than my Le Monde reading challenge, which proceeds at snails pace!

      That does surprise me about Asian authors in Australia, as you say, you’re so close I thought the translations would be much more prolific. Having said that, its not like UK bookshops are filled with translated European fiction, although it is available. One of the comments on my Le Monde page said 40% of fiction read in France is in translation, which is incredible.

      I really enjoyed The Diving Pool – I want to read more Ogawa now for sure 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • It really was great, I definitely want to read more Ogawa now 🙂

      I haven’t read nearly enough east Asian authors either, but I really liked Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami and I’m hoping more of her work will be translated into English.

      Haruki Murakami is the colossus of Japanese contemporary literature and lots of his work has been translated if you haven’t read him already?

      Liked by 1 person

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