Brunei: reading between the lines

Brunei was looking tricky. Try what combination of search terms I would, there seemed to be no literature in translation from this small, oil-rich nation on Borneo in the South China Sea. The only suggestion I heard of came in the shape of a collection of Dusun folk tales compiled and translated by UK academic Eva Maria Kershaw. It was recommended by Canadian blogger Paul, who said it was the only Bruneian work he had been able to find for his own global literary quest.

I was on the point of buying the book, but something held me back. Nagging away at me was the thought that there must be someone out there who could help me find a written work by a Bruneian author that I could read in English. It was just a question of tracking them down. What I needed was a group of enthusiastic, English-speaking Bruneians who were passionate about promoting their culture and would have the time to circulate my query and, if I was lucky, do a bit of research on my behalf.

The solution came in a flash: students. A quick bit of googling revealed a surprisingly large number of Bruneian students’ associations dotted around the world’s Anglophone countries. I fired off emails to several of them, hunted down a couple of others through Facebook, and sat back to wait.

It didn’t take long. The very next day I got a message from Zuliza, media communications officer at the Bruneian Students’ Association, New Zealand. She wanted to help and asked for more details about the sort of book I was looking for. I answered as best I could.

The weeks went by. I found myself keying ‘Dusun folk tale collection’ into Google in idle moments. Then, at the beginning of August, Zuliza got back to me. She had some good news: she had found a story in the Brunei Times about a Bruneian author who had taken the step of publishing a novel in English in an effort to attract a wider readership for his work. It was available to buy on Amazon. Would it do?

One air punch and a vigorous Highland jig of delight later, I downloaded the novel on to my Kindle and began to read.

Set in France, Four Kings by Christopher Sun (aka Sun Tze Yun) follows American archaeology professor James Hale as he sets out to solve the murder of his best friend. Accompanied by his friend’s distraught and yet disturbingly attractive daughter, the academic plunges into the dizzying world of fine-art investment in an effort to track down a killer with a penchant for priceless artefacts and a habit of leaving playing cards next to each of his victims. But as riots grip the country and the president is forced to consider extreme measures to prevent anarchy, it becomes clear that the deaths may be part of a conspiracy that goes all the way to the top.

This is a book with a clear idea of what it wants to be. From the sensationalist, blood-smattered cover picture, right through to the vital clue that drops out of a copy of The Da Vinci Code halfway through the novel, Sun makes no secret of the fact that he is out to take on the global blockbusters with this, the first in a pentalogy following the adventures of James Hale. There is even a wry dig at the bestselling US author when, picking up the novel with a laugh, detective Darley remarks: ‘It’s nice to know that even sociopathic killers don’t mind reading trash now and then.’

Sadly, though, I don’t think Dan Brown has much to worry about. Although Sun may have big ambitions, his execution is lacking. The plotting is loose, improbable and heavily derivative, with unlikely religious relics such as ‘Jesus’s denarius’ and ‘the Spear of Longinus’ passed around between shadowy figures who materialise and disappear almost randomly. At times, even the characters themselves seem to feel that there is a ludicrous air to events, as when Hale grumbles to himself: ‘This is crazy […]. Why the hell am I the one finding all the damned bodies around here?’

As in QuixotiQ, my Bahraini pick, the Western setting is problematic. Although Sun has made an effort to ground the novel in France, unlike the mid-Atlantic no-man’s-land of QuixotiQ, the context lacks authenticity. Characters with names like Bruno Culruthers, Hugh Jetter and the unfortunately spelled Rouseeau strut around a faceless world that feels more like an airport terminal than a French city.

As with QuixotiQ, however, there is a serious point here. For the second time this year, I have found that the only work I am able to read from a nation with a written tradition is one by a writer who feels he has no option but to try and write a Western novel in English if he is to reach an audience outside his country. According to his Brunei Times interview, Sun has written and published books, cerpen (short stories) and sajak (poems) in his first language, Bahasa Melayu. Now those I really would like to read.

Four Kings by Christopher Sun and Jimmy Chan (CreateSpace, 2011)

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)

Denmark: office politics

The Exception by Christian Jungersen was one of several books suggested by Danish book blogger Christina Rosendahl. I was grateful for the tip-off as Danish-to-English translations are not particularly common and my knowledge of the literary scene in Denmark is, well, probably slightly less extensive than my grasp of 18th century marquetry.

In actual fact, Rosendahl’s words about this novel weren’t the most glowing of recommendations – she said it was ‘quite good’. However, the subject matter intrigued me, and, as it’s a thriller, I thought it might make a welcome contrast with some of the other books I’ve been reading this year.

The story turns around four women working at the Danish Centre of Genocide Information. Tasked with collating, curating and archiving data about the world’s atrocities, they come under strain from a series of pressures to do with budget cuts, politics and their own loyalties and foibles that skew and twist the office dynamics. But when two of them receive death threats, the working environment takes a turn for the poisonous and it’s not long before the barbarity they document comes crashing into their comfortable lives.

Office dynamics are Jungersen’s speciality. Adept at isolating and revealing the mechanisms that enable people to be ‘so dishonest with themselves that they aren’t even aware of what they are doing’, he lays bare the steps by which ordinarily decent people can victimise and bully a colleague, all the while believing they are doing nothing wrong. This is rendered all the more impressive by the split narrative, which sees the story told through the eyes of all four women, and the weaving in of theories about the psychology of those who commit acts of genocide, which enables Jungersen to draw interesting parallels with the mental violence perpetrated in the office.

Jungersen gets round the problem of having to shoehorn a lot of background information and theorising into the novel by having several of the characters write articles about the psychology of genocide. This emphasises the ‘cognitive dissonance’ through which they are able to hold several conflicting ideas in their heads at the same time, acting cruelly while maintaining a belief in their own goodness – just as they write pieces about the mental mechanisms of ‘evil’ without applying them to their own lives.

Nevertheless, he labours the point a little towards the end, even quoting a section from one essay twice in case the reader has somehow missed the comparisons he is drawing. Similarly, although generally well handled, one or two of the more outlandish twists in the plot – which, without giving too much away, brings a Serbian war criminal into the orbit of the women’s workplace – are a little hard to swallow.

By and large, though, this is a gripping, thought-provoking and intelligent piece of work. It makes us question the patterns we  play out in our day-to-day lives and acts as a powerful warning against the sort of lazy pack mentality that can be all too easy to slip into. It was a jolly good pageturner too.

The Exception (Undtagelsen) by Christian Jungersen, translated from the Danish by Anna Paterson (Phoenix, 2007)