“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.

“It is the test of a novel writer’s art that he conceal his snake-in-the-grass; but the reader may be sure that it is always there.” (Anthony Trollope)

Happy Chinese New Year!  This year is the Year of the Snake, so I chose a snake related quote to start, and had originally planned to take a snakey, not-too-obvious look at literature for Chinese New Year, but sadly my brain failed me.  So I’ve gone the more obvious route of choosing two authors of Chinese origin; there are two great novels and I hope you like them.  (I had intended to be much more timely and publish this post on 10 February, but with a belly full of celebratory Peking duck and seafood noodles working their soporific effect, I failed in this also.  So far it’s fair to say that the year of the snake is not off to a flying start with me).

Firstly, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo (Vintage 2007).  The female protagonist of the novel, Z (because the Brits can’t pronounce Zhuang), arrives in London speaking minimal English.  Over the course of a year in which she has a relationship with an older British man, she learns the language and some life lessons.  The novel is divided up into months, charting Z’s year, and each section has chapter headings of words and definitions that Z learns as she masters the English language.  For example:


Confuse v mix up; perplex; disconcert; make unclear

English food very confusing. They eating and drinking strange things. I think even Confucius have great confusion if he studying English.

….I confusing again when I look at whipped cream on little blackboard. What is that mean? How people whip cream? I see a poster somewhere near Chinatown. On poster naked woman wears only leather boots and leather pants and she whipping naked man kneeling down under legs.  So a English chef also whipping in kitchen?”

This fresh take on the English language makes for a really entertaining read.  Obviously the image of some sort of BDSM kitchen in a café offering afternoon tea is funny, but it also makes you consider why we use the words we use, and the way language can seem arbitrary.  Certainly she highlights oddities like:

“why there two go for one sentence? Why not enough to say one go to go?…”I go” is enough expressing “I am going to go…”Really.”

She’s right – why do we say “go” twice?  And language snobs take note, language is not set down in golden, irrefutable, unchanging rules :

“One thing, even Shakespeare write bad English.  For example, he says “where go thou?” If I speak like that Miss Margaret will tell me wrongly.”

While exploring language in a truly inventive way, Guo has done a great job of creating a distinct character’s voice, and not just because she starts off in stilted English and becomes more fluent throughout the year (by the end of the book Z writes: “I take the snowdrops. I gaze at the flowers in my hand. So delicate, they are already wilting in the heat of my palm.”)  It’s because Z is forceful, unique and engaging person who you really feel you know by the time you turn the last page.

For the second book I thought I’d look at Sour Sweet by Timothy Mo (Abacus 1982). The voice in this novel is very different to Z’s.  Guo’s novel is written in the first person, a very forthright engagement with the reader including direct questions. Sour Sweet is written in the third person and takes a broad look at the Chinese community in 1960s London through the Chen family and the Triads.  When these two “families” intersect, tragedy ensues.  The third person narrative allows for an ironic distance, but simultaneously you really feel for the characters.  When Chen meets the Triads to ask for a loan he constantly tops up the tea they aren’t drinking and fears his fruit offering is damaged:

“He noticed his best shoes had become quite sodden with tea. He exclaimed and moved away, seeing that the fruit in the bags had indeed been squashed and, as he had feared, there were greasy-looking patches on the brown paper.  The bags were already starting disintegrate.  Perhaps this was why they had rejected his offering.”

This passage demonstrates so much about the novel as a whole: the insight into a culture and power that operates across countries, the pathos of every day life, the humour of every day life.  Small tragedies that can escalate.  Failures to communicate even when you speak the same language.

And I suppose the idea of communication is what unites these novels as well as their consideration of Chinese cultures.  Both highlight the inadequacies of language, and the inadequacies of language users, as we try to reach out to others through imperfect means. Both are funny, both are sad.  Sour Sweet indeed.

Here are the books with a laden plate of what I know, from having read these novels, is wholly inauthentic  Chinese food.  (Which looks awful – I’m clearly not cut out to be a food blogger). But it was delicious.  I wish I could tell you that the picture represents all the Chinese food I ate that night, but that would be so very untrue…