Barbados: rum and water

I was very tempted to read a book by George Lamming as my Bajan choice. He’d been recommended by Trinidadian writer Vahni Capildeo, who I got in touch with through London-based literary organisation, Exiled Writers Ink. ‘Perhaps it’s just being from the region,’ she told me, ‘but I find some of the newer generation of Caribbean international prose writers like rum and water whereas he’s the rough spirit itself…’

This got me wondering about this next wave of Caribbean writers. Who where they and what were they writing about? Why did some of their work strike Capildeo as watered down?

While thinking about this, I stoogled (stumbled while googling – or should that be gumbled?) upon Glenville Lovell. Born and brought up in the Bajan village of Parish Land, Christ Church, this dancer-turned-writer had leapt on to the world literary scene in 1995 with his first novel Fire in the Canes to wide critical acclaim. He clearly set a lot of store by the tradition of storytelling he’d grown up with and I was intrigued to read that his performance background meant that he sometimes used music and choreography to develop his works. Perhaps I would come to regret this, but I was going to take a closer look.

Lovell’s second novel Song of Night unpicks the aftermath of a crime of passion from the perspective of the killer’s daughter. Ostracized by her small community of Bottom Rock, Cyan, or ‘Night’, must draw on her own resourcefulness and tenacity to survive. But in a society eroded by the tides of rich tourists that sweep through it, it’s difficult for a lone young woman to fend for herself without surrendering much of her pride and identity.

For all its tough subject matter – murder, prostitution, arson, drug use, domestic abuse, abortion and rape all have a part to play in the narrative – this is an extraordinarily beautiful book. Much of this comes from Lovell’s, use of imagery and fine ear for voices, which creates some taught dialogue. The text also bustles with anonymous commentators who gossip about the book’s spiralling events, conjuring a powerful sense of village life, a technique Marlon James would later use in John Crow’s Devil (my Jamaican book).

The focus of the novel is by no means parochial, though. Indeed, in many ways this is a book about the relation of Barbados to other nations and in particular the US. After decades of independence from British rule, the island seems to be sinking under another more insidious form of colonialism:

‘The once-colonized were free and willing to be colonized again by the burnt smell of suntan lotion, by the sight of broiling white flesh oozing green in the midday sun […] the businessmen and women, lonely housewives, schoolteachers, and policemen turned pleasure-seekers. They brought with them a sense of ownership, of the world belonging to them. And why not? The world spun on the edge of the American dollar.’

With this influx of rich Americans and Europeans comes the dilution of local identity, pride and purpose. Making money at any cost is the priority for many, while Bajans who aspire to more than a life of servicing the needs and desires of the world’s wealthy folk dream of emigrating to the US – although as rich African-American Koko points out, the land of the free has its own restrictions and limitations.

Nevertheless, there is no question that a lot of the richest Bajan culture now exists far from the island’s shores.  ‘All the writers live overseas,’ observes Koko, inviting the reader to look through her to Lovell, sitting in his New York apartment, writing passionately, sadly and angrily about a country he himself has left.

Playing these issues out in the plot, Lovell brings Night’s story to a gripping and bitter climax. He creates a powerful and memorable allegory for the wave of change overwhelming the island, while keeping all his characters, with the possible exception of the preacher who tries to save Night, vibrant, individual and strong. If this work feels watered down in comparison to  books by previous generations of Bajan writers, that may be precisely the point. But if that’s the case, Lamming must be strong stuff indeed.

Song of Night by Glenville Lovell (Soho Press, 1998)

Vietnam: war of words

I first heard of this book in a comment at the bottom of an article on the Guardian books website. Opinionated, witty and weird, these reader discussions can often say more about the people writing the comments than the literature they are debating. However, every now and then someone adds something that really makes you think.

In this case, the topic was books about the Vietnam War. Journalist Mark Hooper had posted his top ten but, as the first commenter remarked, had neglected to include any books by Vietnamese authors. Hooped responded to say that the article was about Vietnam books that claim to be ‘the best book on the Vietnam War you’ll ever read’. He had of course read The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh, but the book jacket only said sober things like ‘a classic’ and ‘a triumph’ and so it didn’t qualify for the list.

I hadn’t read The Sorrow of War so I decided to give it a go. Given Hooper’s comments, I was surprised when my edition arrived to find the cover sporting a quote from the Independent saying that the novel ‘takes its place alongside the greatest war novel of the century, All Quiet on the Western Front‘ – surely by default that meant it was claiming to be the best Vietnam War book you’ll ever read?

I wondered briefly about popping up to the books department to try and track down this Mark Hooper and ask him what he thought he was playing at. But the article was more than four years old and besides I still had nearly 100 books to get through before the end of the year. I decided I’d better get on with the reading.

Drawing on Bao Ninh’s own horrific experiences during the conflict (he was one of only 10 survivors out of a brigade of 500), the novel tells the story of Kien, a war veteran struggling to piece his life together after 11 brutal years on the front line. Haunted by the memories of what he has seen and thoughts of his teenage life before the war, Kien wanders through the city of Hanoi and a society he no longer recognises. But until he finds a way to express and work through his experiences, peace will remain another world.

Ninh’s writing is exceptional. Blowing apart clinical descriptions of battle procedure with violent blasts of extreme experience, he captures the mixture of detachment and horror that characterises Kien’s mental state. The episodes he recounts – among them the violent rape and murder or three young girls by US troops and the drowning of a wounded man in a flooding ditch – are among the most graphic and shocking I’ve come across but they are never gratuitous and, even after more than 10 years of embedded reporting from the frontlines in Iraq and Afghanistan, they are startlingly fresh. Working with the eerie descriptions of phantoms and monsters that mark the protagonist and his terrified comrades’ ‘drift over the edge from logic’ after months in the Jungle of Screaming Souls, they capture ‘how cruelly [the young soldiers] were twisted and tortured by war’.

For all its anger and violence, however, the novel contains striking moments of beauty. The most bewitching of these involve Phuong, Kien’s childhood sweetheart, who, like him, is irrevocably altered by the conflict. Wistful and raw, these evocations of first love break in upon the narrative like rays of sunshine through the jungle canopy, making their surroundings seem all the more dark and threatening.

The chronology of the novel is complex, with the storyline shifting ground repeatedly so that the past and present all seem to inhabit a sort of formless now, reflecting Kien’s imprisonment in his vivid memories. In the hands of another writer, this might be frustrating, but in Ninh’s it is extraordinary, particularly in the final third, where the way events spiral in on Kien’s most painful recollection draws the book to a devastating close.

If we needed an argument for the importance of translation, it is here in this subtle, gripping, angry and tender depiction of the personal consequences of war. Striding across the arbitrary fronts of race and nationality, Bao Ninh speaks to the heart of human loss and longing. In a world where western journalists write lists of novels that tell only one side of this bitter story, his work should be read much more.

The Sorrow of War (Than Phan Cua Tinh Yeu) by Bao Ninh, English version by Frank Palmos from translation by Phan Thanh Hao (Minerva, 1994)

Solomon Islands: between two worlds

This was another recommendation from The Modern Novel  – and a welcome one too, given that the list entry for the Solomon Islands was ominously blank. There just seemed to be nothing out there from this tiny archipelago hovering some way above Australia in the big, blue Pacific.

So when my copy of John Saunana’s 1980 novel The Alternative arrived from a bookseller in Spain, I was interested to see that when it was published it had been held up as the great white hope of literature in the region. ‘At a time when contemporary Solomon Islands writing is growing in scope and depth, this novel will stand as a signal achievement, as a challenge to other Solomon Islands writers,’ proclaims the blurb, while the flyleaf boasts the support of a range of illustrious organisations.

I couldn’t help wondering where the fruits of this apparent late 20th century burgeoning of Solomon Islands writing had got to. As far as I’d been able to find out, those looking for written work in English from this Commonwealth nation would find very little alternative to, er, The Alternative.

Exploring the effects of colonialism, the novel tells the story of Maduru, an intelligent boy forced to inhabit two universes. Singled out for education at an exclusive, British-style boarding school, dubbed the ‘Eton of the Pacific’, he finds himself pulled between the culture he was born into and the one that has been imposed on his island home. At last, as British decolonisation sets in and old certainties begin to crumble, he is forced to choose between his place in the world and his sense of self.

The novel is strong on its depiction of the way colonialism seeps into and warps an individual’s sense of identity. Portraying Maduru’s moments of wishing to be white and his contempt for the ‘bush kanakas’ in his home village, as well as his internalisation of Western attitudes, Saunana is skilled at showing how subjection spreads its roots through everyday life. Perhaps the most powerful example of this comes in the early chapters, when Maduru, indignant at being cast as the Virgin Mary in a school play, rebels against his teachers in his mind: ‘if I were Samson I’d tear you to pieces like the lion, and pull down this chapel like the Temple and kill everybody in it,’ he thinks, unaware that his choice of imagery betrays exactly how deep into his consciousness Western culture has sunk.

Saunana’s anger at the injustice and discrimination of the colonial regime comes across clearly too. At times, this takes the form of highlighting the absurd reality of living in a ‘colonial relic’, subject to decisions taken by penpushers in a drab, rainy country on the other side of the world. Elsewhere, it is expressed more extremely, as when the headmaster, driven to distraction by Maduru’s unionisation of the student body to get a teacher removed, gives vent to a rant about ‘this God-forsaken place’, which lays his prejudices bare. There is also the interesting decision to put some of the later dialogue in Maduru’s mother tongue, excluding English language readers from understanding the full meaning.

Without doubt, this is a novel of its time. Some of the attitudes, in particular Maduru’s unashamed sexism, read oddly in 21st century London.

There are also some pacing problems in the narrative. Saunana has a strange habit of spending the last pages of a chapter building a dilemma for his hero, only to diffuse it and sweep it away in the final paragraph, leaving the reader nonplussed. Digressions – some delightful, some downright odd – are rife and there are moments of hyperbole, which teeter on the verge of the ridiculous in the school context, although they work better if understood as metaphors for a wider national struggle.

Nevertheless, this is a fascinating, strange and engrossing book. Anyone with an interest in colonial and post-colonial literature will find much to chew on here.

And if you do know what happened to all those other Solomon Islands writers of the early eighties, leave a comment and let me know  – it’d be great to hear of any more works out there.

The Alternative by John Saunana (University of the South Pacific, 1980)

HALFWAY APPEAL

So here we are: 98 books in and 98 books to go. Halfway round the world, exactly halfway through the year.

And what a journey it’s been so far. We’ve heard the North Korean government’s official line on fiction, sourced a manuscript of a classic novel unavailable in English from Mozambique and listened to a story written specially for the project from the world’s newest country South Sudan.

We’ve seen a Burundian novel published to ebook because of enthusiasm from blog readers, discovered the Andorran Dan Brown and had help from a Luxembourgish pop star to find a book from the world’s only grand duchy. We’ve even seen the world change slightly, with Palestine replacing Kosovo on the list.

The project’s been featured in two national newspapers, on UNESCO’s list of World Book Day initiatives and on countless other blogs around the globe, from Romania to South Korea.

None of this would have been possible without you. From the many people who’ve suggested books, helped with research and even gone to bookshops in far-flung places on my behalf, to the kind folk who comment on, like, tweet and share posts, making all the early mornings and late nights worthwhile, you have kept me going. Thank you.

But it’s not over yet. Not by a long chalk. And some of the biggest challenges lie ahead.

There are 25 countries that I have yet to find any books for. These are:

  • Brunei
  • Central African Republic
  • Comoros
  • Guinea Bissau
  • Honduras
  • Kiribati
  • Liechtenstein
  • Madagascar
  • Mauritania
  • Micronesia, Federated States of
  • Monaco
  • Mongolia
  • Myanmar
  • Niger
  • Palau
  • Panama
  • Papua New Guinea
  • Qatar
  • Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
  • San Marino
  • Sao Tome and Principe
  • Seychelles
  • Slovakia
  • Tuvalu
  • Vanuatu

There are also plenty of other countries on the list that could do with some more recommendations.

So I’m asking you – yes, you, sitting there reading this now – to help me again. Please tweet/share/email/discuss/create expressive dance routines about this project. Please look at the list and see if there are any countries you might be able to help find novels, short story collections or memoirs from.

Maybe you have friends or relatives there? Maybe someone you work with does? Or someone whose restaurant you eat in? Or that nice man you sit next to sometimes on the bus*? Perhaps you’re going on holiday there this summer or you found a blog by someone from there recently?

However you do it and however tenuous the connections seem, I’d love to hear about them. Let’s see what we can find between us.

*Please be sure before you engage him in conversation that he really is a nice man.

Bhutan: what goes around…

What people don’t tell you when you set out to read the world is that the research can take almost as many hours as the reading. Googling, emailing groups and individuals for recommendations, checking that suggestions meet the criteria, trying to decide which book to go for – it all takes time. So it’s always a joy when an expert on a particular country’s literature helps me out.

Ngawang at the Writers Association of Bhutan is one of these wonderful people. When I contacted the group through its blog, he sent me a list of five writers, together with four suggestions of titles. Of these, I chose The Circle of Karma by Kunzang Choden, partly because Ngawang described it as ‘one of the best books by a Bhutanese author’, but also because it is the first book by a Bhutanese woman published outside Bhutan, which makes it something of a milestone in South Asian literature. I was very excited when it arrived from India, vacuum-packed in cellophane.

The novel follows the life of Tsomo, a young girl from rural Bhutan who, not content to settle for a life of domestic drudgery, sets out to explore the world. Forced to be an outsider because of a mysterious illness that gives her a permanently distended belly, Tsomo works her way into northern India, drawn by the friendships she makes, a growing fascination with the Buddhist masters and communities that thrive in the Himalayan foothills, and a desire for peace.

The raw deal facing women in rural South Asian society is a major theme. Right from the opening chapters – in which the young Tsomo, unable to convince her father to educate her alongside her brothers, decides that being born a woman must be a punishment for bad karma from previous lives – the book portrays a world in which misogyny, sexual abuse and injustice are daily realities.

Women are by no means passive victims, however. One of the strengths of the book is its portrayal of the series of exuberant and warm friendships Tsomo makes throughout her life with other women. Many of these relationships, such as her bond with Dechen Choki – a young woman Tsomo saves from being raped repeatedly by their supervisor when they are working as manual labourers – are founded on the women’s shared experience of adversity.

This salvaging of positives from suffering is one of the many Buddhist tenets woven through the book. With much of its narrative taking the form of parabolic episodes through which Tsomo learns truths about the world and herself, the novel almost reads like a manual for progression to enlightenment at points.

What makes it work is Choden’s gift for evocation, both of place and of experience. Her descriptions of the rugged spiritual terrain Tsomo covers in her quest for peace and her moments of ecstasy reminded me of other great religious works, such as Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter, particularly in the passages concerning Tsomo’s pilgrimages to sacred sites such as Bodhgaya and Kathmandu:

‘Once there they looked for the Boudhanath chorten, the Great Stupa, the starting point for every Bhutanese pilgrim in Nepal. From the moment they arrived at the chorten, Tsomo felt its awesome presence everywhere. The eyes on the chorten seemed to look deep into her soul and she felt humbled and almost afraid. She felt she could not hide anything from those eyes and yet at the same time, she was drawn to them in a strange way.’

Now and then the narrative gets bogged down in explaining the many religious and social customs that fill the book. This no doubt owes something to Choden’s decision to write her novel in English – a sign that she intended her story to be read outside Bhutan by people who may not be familiar with the country’s culture. Occasionally passages on topics such as why formal marriage is not common in rural communities and the ritual of overfeeding guests can read more like anthropological essays than chapters in a novel.

Mostly, though, this is a fascinating and absorbing book. Reading it drew me into this little-known world even more profoundly than I suspect visiting a hundred Buddhist gompas in the Himalayas would. A rare treat.

The Circle of Karma by Kunzang Choden (Zubaan/Penguin India, 2005)

Ukraine: killer punchlines

This was one of those books that you hear about and want to read. Not only was the premise of the novel – about an obituary writer who shares his flat with a king penguin – intriguing, but the story of Andrey Kurkov’s rise to become one of Ukraine’s most celebrated writers was pretty gripping in its own right: having to deal with more than 500 rejections from publishers, Kurkov self-published his early works and sold them on the streets of Kiev. Clearly, this was one dedicated writer.

The unlikely hero of Kurkov’s most famous work, which bears the Ronseal-style title Death and the Penguin, is Viktor, a novelist manqué who strikes it lucky when a newspaper hires him to write advance obituaries of some of the country’s great, good and not so good. All seems to be going well and Viktor looks set to break out of the lonely, frugal existence he has shared with Misha, a king penguin he adopted when the zoo closed down, until the subjects of his obituaries start to die in suspicious circumstances. As it becomes clear that his ‘vital images of the future departed’ carry more significance than he could ever have imagined, Viktor finds himself embroiled in an increasingly sinister plot, and realises he will need to use all his powers of invention to escape with his life.

Funny, dark and spare, Kurkov’s prose evokes complex situations in a handful of words. The writer does this by using small details to reveal the humanity of his characters: a militiaman’s wish for a quiet shift, a cartoon on TV, a gangster’s pride about his car.

He combines this with razor-sharp perception to produce striking and often touching reflections on death, loneliness, friendship and love. In particular, Viktor’s meditations on the strange alchemy that is the obituary writer’s craft – creating something fixed and definitive out of a mass of memories, half-truths and anecdotes – are fascinating:

‘The past believed in dates. And everyone’s life consisted of dates, giving life a rhythm and sense of gradation, as if from the eminence of a date one could look back and down, and see the past itself. A clear, comprehensible past, divided up into square of events, lines of paths taken.’

Similar to Vatanen’s hare in Arto Paasilinna’s The Year of the Hare (my Finnish book), Misha the penguin acts as a kind of barometer for his master, reflecting his mental and emotional state. He also humanises Viktor, giving him the vulnerability necessary to enable Kurkov to steer him through the moral hinterland the plot demands without losing the reader’s sympathy.

The result is that rarest of beasts: a novel that is every bit as gripping as it is well-written. I read it in virtually one sitting – and not merely because I had to keep up with the schedule. Great.

Death and the Penguin (Smert’postoronnego) by Andrey Kurkov, translated from the Russian by George Bird (Melville International Crime, 2011)

Belize: high praise

This was a recommendation from Shirlene at Belizean Publisher Cubola Productions, who I emailed for suggestions. There were several authors she could recommend, she said, but Zoila Ellis was her top pick and she was sure I would enjoy her work.

It turned out Shirlene was in good company. When I opened my copy, I was met by a foreword by Governor-General Dr Colville Young, in which he remembers Ellis’s tentative request that he might look at her work and see if it was worth publishing in 1988 and talks in glowing terms about what he found when he  did. It sounded promising so I settled down to read.

The seven short stories in On Heroes Lizards and Passions paint a powerful and varied picture of life in Belize and the Belizean diaspora. Centring on moments when characters find release from fears, prejudices, assumptions, hopes and dreams, they reveal the way that, wittingly or unwittingly, we can change the course of one another’s lives. There is the lapsed priest who finds a way to make peace with his inadequacies through a neighbour’s chance comment, the pregnant teenager set free by her grandmother’s compassion and the lizard community thrown into confusion by the arrival of humans.

Ellis’s speciality is pinpointing the blind spots and bigotry lodged in her characters’ psyches, all the while keeping their humanity in the forefront of the reader’s mind. The most memorable example of this is ‘And the Subway Takes me Home’, in which Carla struggles against prejudice in her work as a maid for a rich white American pensioner, all the while pondering how to get her son away from his Kerub girlfriend back home in Belize:

‘How could she explain to him: “Son I don’t know her, but I know a lot of people like her. Kerubs are all alike. Clannish, dirty, smell of fish. Before you know it you married to her and her whole generation move in with you.”‘

The power of the story lies in Ellis’s tracing of the steps that have led to Carla’s skewed way of thinking, which makes the explosion of her plans at the end of the story all the more devastating and cathartic.

Ellis’s eye for the wrinkles in the human mind can give rise to a great deal of comedy too. The final story, ‘A Hero’s Welcome’, in which a remote Belizean community prepares a grand celebration to welcome home Mas’ Tom, its one and only member to go off and fight in the second world war, is at once hilarious and touching. As we watch the villagers scrambling to devise fitting entertainments for the man they have pictured playing a pivotal role in secret missions all over the globe and come to think of as ‘their salvation’, the widening gap between their imaginings and the unprepossessing truth becomes funnier and sadder with every page.

Occasionally Ellis’s phonetic representations of Belizean speech can sometime be a little hard to decipher. This disturbed the flow of some of the early stories, although I did find myself keying into it more and more towards the end.

But this was a minor issue. Overall this was a great read by a subtle and empathetic storyteller with a keen awareness of how the cogs turn in the human (and possibly lizard) brain. Shirlene and Dr Colville Young were right: I thoroughly enjoyed it. If only every constitutional figurehead were as proactive in championing writing like this.

On Heroes Lizards and Passion by Zoila Ellis (Cubola Productions, 1997)

Uzbekistan: banned books

A frequent dilemma when you’re trying to read a book from every country in the world is deciding which of the many perspectives in each nation to choose literature from. This is particularly tricky in the case of states that ban books on certain topics or viewpoints and so have two literatures: the official stories and the books released underground or outside, away from the reach of the law enforcers.

The journalist in me tends to be drawn to the illicit, banned books, partly because they’re more intriguing but also because I tend to assume that they will somehow be more authentic and truthful. However, as I found with my North Korean book (My Life and Faith by ardent patriot Ri In Mo), this tendency to favour marginalised voices over the official line can have the paradoxical effect of excluding the authorized stories and making them the ostracized, radical accounts on the world literature stage.

But what about a book written with a view to mainstream publication in the author’s home country but banned at the last minute? That was the situation Hamid Ismailov faced when the Uzbek translation of his Russian-language novel The Railway was due to be published in Tashkent. The first half of the novel had already appeared in a journal in 1997 when the Uzbek government, jumpy about the work’s irreverent attitude to authority, pulled the plug.

The book spans the first 80 years of the 20th century and is set in the small town of Gilas, a settlement on the old Silk Route and now a stop on the railway line ploughing its way across Central Asia. Presenting a portrait of the myriad narratives woven through this remote backwater, which has seen Uzbeks, Russians, Persians, Jews, Koreans, Tartars, gypsies, mullahs and Bolsheviks pass through and make their marks, it bombards the reader with a host of extraordinary, grotesque and often hilarious tales. There are the pregnant twins in a race to give birth after a town official promises to marry the first-born’s mother, the landowner bankrupted by paying off his pugnacious son’s blood debts, the Kirghiz teacher driven to absurdity by his desire to fit in and the orphaned boys who assume prominent positions in the town’s music scene despite one of them being deaf.

Translator Robert Chandler describes his work on the book as being like ‘restoring a precious carpet’ in his excellent preface and it’s easy to see why. Not only is the book structurally elaborate with a cast of more than 100 named characters, but it is linguistically and culturally complex too. Labyrinthine sentences thread themselves through clause after clause, teasing the reader with puns, digressions and asides, and the narrative bristles with references to events, ceremonies, bureaucratic formalities and rites of passage that will be unknown to most Western readers.

At its best, the humour and brilliance of this chronicle of ‘the inhabitants of Gilas: that lost and ill-assorted tribe of the debauched and depraved’ shines through. The puns are witty and the narrative glitters with insights – in particular it presents us with a ruddier and much more jovial face of Islam than we are used to seeing in the West.

Chandler manages to smuggle a lot of the linguistic jokes across in one guise or another. The scene early on in the book, for example, where Ivan the train driver misunderstands Umarali’s prison Russian and gives him fuel instead of alcohol is great.

However, there’s no denying the fact that this book is hard work. Even with the list of characters and Chandler’s end notes, it’s impossible to keep track of everything and everyone, at least on a first attempt. At times reading it felt like being at a lively party where people batted around in-jokes I could only half understand.

The narrative expresses this sense of being on the outside looking in too. One of the most striking moments in the book, where a nameless boy blows a kiss to an unknown girl on a passing train, evokes a sense of extreme  wistfulness.  For this book, shut out from the readers who would appreciate its subtleties without referring to the footnotes, it seems a powerful metaphor: a connection attempted but somehow missed.

The Railway by Hamid Ismailov, translated from the Russian by Robert Chandler (Vintage, 2007)

Singapore: no man’s land

This was one of the books picked out for me by Rafidah and the bookseller at Silverfish Books in Kuala Lumpur. Part of the Quintessential Asia series published by Singporean company SNP, it’s the sort of thing I would have been very unlikely to have found sitting in my south London flat googling ‘Singapore+writer’ (even though it won the Singapore Literature Prize in 1992).

The novel follows art teacher Suwen as she struggles to break out of the bland routine into which her life has settled since she returned home from studying in the UK. Eager to create something significant, she embarks on a project to ‘marry history and art’ in one ambitious installation that will capture the character of her complex and multifaceted homeland. But as Suwen researches ‘the strands of different histories and cultures woven into [Singapore’s] modern fabric of many hues and textures’, she finds that the conflicts and contradictions in society are sewn into her own personality too, and is forced to confront the reasons for her withdrawal from the world.

Suchen Christine Lim’s great talents are her abilities to evoke experiences, conjure voices and tells stories from a wide variety of perspectives. Whether she’s describing the crushing hardships endured by Singapore’s rickshaw coolies 100 years ago or the existential crises of art students, she has the knack of making the reader live and breathe the narrative with her.

This large empathy enables her to enter into complex cultural issues more fully than many other writers manage to do. And in Singapore, a land jostling with Eurasians and Chindians where Singlish is the most common language, the search for identity and common ground is a particularly rich seam.

As a British reader, I was especially interested by the presentation of the UK and its colonial legacy in the book. While some of it, such as references to ‘those patronising asses from the British Council’, made me smile, there was a lot to ponder and be challenged by and I was intrigued by the difference in thinking Suwen identifies between people who studied in the Eastern education system and ‘English-educated malcontents’ like her. Perhaps most thought-provoking of all was her angry accusation to Scottish colleague Mark, the man she secretly loves:

‘You British always pride yourselves as playing cricket and being fair. But deep down, you’re all racists to the bone.’

The British nationality is by no means the only one to be dissected in the novel. Malaysians, Indians and Chinese, among others, all have their turn in relation to the no-man’s-land of mid-20th-century Singapore and are all shown to be riddled with conflicts and compromises.

Shifting between so many perspectives, timeframes and stories – not to mention Suwen’s own personal history – requires some fancy footwork on Lim’s part. This is usually well-handled, although the scenery for the next act does occasionally come crashing down abruptly before the characters have quite left the stage.

Similarly, while the many complex discussions of nationality, identity, art and history succeed in feeling natural nearly all the time, people do once or twice step away from the action to deliver a Brechtian monologue.

Overall, though, this is a fearless and engrossing book that goes to the heart of human fears and insecurities. While presenting a picture of a specific place in a particularly rich and turbulent period of its history, it throws the door open to shed light on humanity all over the world. I loved it.

Thanks Rafidah and Silverfish Books. If I’m ever in Kuala Lumpur, I’ll definitely be stopping by.

Fistful of Colours by Suchen Christine Lim (SNP Editions, 2003)

Angola: the meaning of life

The names of certain countries seem bound up with the conflicts that shaped them. For many in the West words such as Bosnia, Sudan and Libya will conjure up the images of death and destruction that flickered on our TV screens throughout recent decades.

The magnitude of these events and the time it takes to translate and distribute books mean that many of the most powerful translated novels still coming out of these countries deal directly with war and its legacy. So we find a harrowing portrait of the expulsion of ethnic Russians from Tajikistan in Andrei Volos’s Hurramabad and a startling child’s-eye view of the Bosnian War in Sasa Stanisic’s How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone.

However, as I discovered when I read my Angolan choice for this project, not all literature from recent war zones strikes a mournful note.

Published in 2008 by now sadly defunct Aflame Books, Ondjaki’s The Whistler, the slender first novel from the author who made his name on the world literature stage with Good Morning Comrades, brims with joy and belief in rejuvenation.  It chronicles the arrival of a man with a haunting whistle in a sleepy village. Taking up residence in the church, the mysterious visitor fills the neighbourhood with his tunes, which are so beguiling they even charm the pigeons.

The effect of the music on the village’s human inhabitants is more impressive still. Cutting through the ‘general torpor’, the melodies unsettle and invigorate the largely elderly residents so that each in his or her way breaks free from the predictable patterns of daily life. The narrative culminates in an orgy of sensation, colour and delight, leaving behind a changed community where the inhabitants have a fresh appreciation of their own potency and the rich possibilities of life.

Ondjaki has a great eye for the contrary details that create character. The novel bustles with intriguing individuals who loom from the page: from the town oddball with his penchant for defecation in the open air to the put-upon gravedigger who refuses to leave his post at the cemetery despite no-one having died for years.

Zany and dream-like, the narrative almost takes flight into poetry on several occasions. This creates some extraordinary images, although it can make the throughline of the plot hard to follow.

The novel is so exuberant, however, that this hardly matters. As Ondjaki’s letter to his friend poet Ana Paula Tavares (published at the end of this edition) makes clear, his main concern is with creating a powerful impression rather than a conventional story.

He achieves this. The book is imaginative, passionate and extraordinary. And, when considered in the context of the 500,000 people killed during Angola’s 27-year civil war, it’s peculiarly moving too.

The Whistler by Ondjaki (translated from the Portuguese by Richard Bartlett). Aflame Books, 2008