Monday 28 February 2011

February 2011 Wrap-Up

You may (or may not) have noticed a silence around my computer activities over the last few weeks, and (sadly) that's not coincidental.  Unfortunately, I am once again being forced to abandon my blog, hopefully temporarily , owing to my usual aches and pains.  For the time being, at least, this monthly wrap-up will probably be all he wrote, so I'll do my best to be informative - and brief...

Total Books Read: 11
Year-to-date: 22

New: 9
Rereads: 2

From the Shelves: 3
From the Library: 3
On the Kindle: 5

Novels: 7
Novellas: 3
Plays & Short Stories: 1

Non-English Language: 4 (1 Japanese, 1 German, 1 Russian, 1 Chinese)
In Original Language: 1 (German)

Books read in February were:
1) Beijing Coma by Ma Jian
2) Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome
3) Plays and Petersburg Tales by Nikolai Gogol
4) Salem Chapel by Margaret Oliphant
5) Monkey Grip by Helen Garner
6) Rabbit, Run by John Updike
7) Thousand Cranes by Yasunari Kawabata
8) Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
9) An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro
10) Three Men on the Bummel by Jerome K. Jerome
11) Sanctuary by Edith Wharton

Murakami Challenge: 0 (1/3)
Aussie Author Challenge: 1 (3/12)
Victorian Literature Challenge: 4 (6/15)

Tony's Recommendation for February is:  Ma Jian's Beijing Coma

I had Beijing Coma down as my February pick right from the start, but I did waver a little towards the end of the month.  Thousand Cranes was beautiful (but very short), and Siddhartha was intriguing (but also short).  However, it was Ishiguro's An Artist of the Floating World, with its wonderfully unreliable narrator and a gradual, insidious slide into uncertainty and confusion which almost changed my mind.  In the end though, I decided that Ma Jian's depiction of the events which took place around Tiananmen Square in 1989 was the winner by a nose!

That was February; I wonder what March will bring...

Tuesday 8 February 2011

Political Sleepwalking

There are some events which are so wide-reaching that it seems incredible that anyone could be unaware of them, yet a couple of years back I had a slightly unnerving conversation with a young Chinese student I knew.  It was the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square incident, and I asked them if they had seen any of the coverage of the anniversary on television.  Not only had they seen nothing in the news, they actually knew nothing about the occurrence at all - and, initially at least, thought I was making the whole thing up.

To understand how something like this could happen, you need to find out more about the country, and the incidents of June the 4th, 1989, and there are few better ways to do so than by reading Ma Jian's celebrated novel Beijing Coma.  The story is told from the viewpoint of Dai Wei, a young student who is in a coma after being shot in the head after the students occupying Tiananmen Square were forced to leave by the army.  Through Wei's reflections on the events leading up to his shooting, and the little he grasps from his sick bed, we are given two parallel stories of life in China: the tumultuous build up to an infamous historical event and the following decade of corruption and denial.

The happenings in Tiananmen Square are certainly impressive.  A group of students somehow mobilise a demonstration which grows and grows, gaining support from the common people of Beijing and students elsewhere in China.  At its height, Dai Wei, a security officer assisting the real stars of the movement, looks across the square and estimates that he's looking at around one million people...  Of course, dictatorial regimes are not as easy as all that to shift, and as the weeks pass, not only does the revolutionary fervour dull a little, but the regime starts to quietly plan the protests' end.

Meanwhile, back in Dai Wei's flat in the future, he lies on his solid iron bed, almost fully aware of what is happening around him but unable to communicate with the outside world.  From visits from friends (and his mother's increasingly bitter and confused ramblings), he gleans information about the aftermath of the protests and the consequences for his friends.  With the passing of the years, although the state's interest in him wanes slightly, there is a new threat to his safety.  The Chinese government wants to attract the Olympics to Beijing, and old, decrepit buildings like Dai Wei's home need to be knocked down in order to make way for a new, shiny capital...

At one point, the author makes a telling comparison, saying:

"Your body is a trap, a square with no escape routes." Beijing Coma (2008), Chatto & Windus, p.266
These parallel versions of the story, with Dai Wei trapped and besieged both in the square and in his bed, make up the most important message that Beijing Coma has to offer, namely that in a totalitarian state nowhere is safe.  You have no home when the state can kick down the door at any time.  You have no family when many parents will deliver you to the authorities themselves.  However, the coma could also be seen as an allegory for the whole Chinese populace, who know what democracy is (and want it) but are unable to do the slightest thing about it.  Ma Jian's book is really a portrayal of a whole country trapped in its sleep.

In contrast to the oft-quoted 'Tiananmen Square Massacre' label, most of the students were funnelled out of the square by the enormous number of soldiers who went in to clear it, and Ma Jian makes this very clear in the book.  Nevertheless, this novel is (as far as I'm aware) banned in China, where any mention of the 'June the 4th Incident' is strictly taboo.  In my opinion though, the writer's criticism is focused less on the events leading up to the clearing of the square and more on the blatant human rights violations both before and after the crackdown.  For those of us living in (imperfect) democracies, it's only when we read about what actually happens in other countries that we realise how lucky we are to live in a country where two groups of professional politicians take it in turns to sort out the country and make snide comments at each other.

While the criticism of the ruling party is a given, what is a little more surprising is the way Ma Jian handles the demonstrating students.  Instead of a desperate, freedom-seeking gang of desperadoes, what we instead see is a horde of power- and publicity-hungry egomaniacs, each one afraid of being left behind in the latest shuffle of organisations and functions.  Dai Wei's low-ranking role enables him to observe the power games from the inside and the outside, the ludicrous screaming matches over who is really in charge (while the tanks slowly roll towards the square) are reminiscent of the Iraqi Minister for (mis)Information's denials of allied successes.

In many ways, this portrayal of the inevitable corruption of the students' ideals is very similar to what happens in George Orwell's Animal Farm - in Beijing in 1989, some animals students are definitely more equal than others.  As the student leaders lose their heads, arguing amongst themselves, changing their minds on an hourly basis and (some at least) kowtowing to the government, Dai Wei, the foot soldier of the student elite, strides through it all, hard-working, uncomplaining.  Just like Boxer in Animal Farm (and we all know what happens to him...).

Part of the beauty of Beijing Coma though is its pictures of normal life carrying on in less-than-normal circumstances.  They may be taking part in one of the most famous revolutions of the twentieth century, but that doesn't stop the students from looking around for someone to spend a few quiet moments in a shady corner with.  Dai Wei himself is guilty of spending more than a few moments lusting after a fellow student (although when you think of what is to happen, you can hardly blame him).

Sadly, at the end of it all, we know what happened, and we know what is still happening.  Despite the protests, Tank man and the loss of the 2000 Summer Olympics, little has changed politically in China, and there seems little prospect of any progress in human rights issues in the near future.  However, if the Chinese people are looking for hope, they could do worse than look a few thousand miles to the West.  The current events in Egypt show that people will only put up with repression for so long...

Saturday 5 February 2011

First and La(te)st

I've been very busy at the library recently, so I thought I'd bring you up to date with a double review of Ian McEwan books. What with my Saturday review a short time ago, you'd be forgiven for thinking that I'd deliberately set out to get through his back catalogue as quickly as possible, but the truth is that his name seems to have stuck in my wife's head, and she is forever bringing back one of his novels for me from the library (he seems especially popular in the large-print section...).  Today's offering then combines something old with something new, both are borrowed and definitely blue (with McEwan, it's always a little blue!).

The Cement Garden, written in 1978, was McEwan's first novel, although it's probably more of a novella, reaching as it does barely 173 pages of (very) large print.  It's a cheery little tale, involving death, cross-dressing and incest - clearly McEwan decided early on that he wanted to write about the darker side of life.  After the death of their father, the life of Jack, Julie, Sue and Tom starts to disintegrate, as their mother slides into disease and depression.  Without a parental influence, they begin to unravel gradually, their grief showing itself in different ways.  When Julie brings home a boyfriend one day, the scene is set for everything to fall apart once and for all...

It's difficult to discuss this book without giving away too much, and the events, shocking as they are, are what makes the book enjoyable.  The Cement Garden is not up there with McEwan's later work, but it does explore some interesting areas, following the effects of trauma on unformed adolescent minds, and the concept of social dislocation. It is the self-imposed isolation of the family which allows events to unfold as they do, with no guiding adult hand in sight, until Julie brings her boyfriend Derek into the fold.

It's probably one for readers who have already tried a few of McEwan's works (I don't think you'd be rushing out to stock up on his books after reading this one), and if you've read Atonement or On Chesil Beach, you'll see traces of the style used in later books in this first effort at a novel.  Again, there's the one awful, pivotal moment, which sets the tone of the rest of the story, something which was beginning to annoy me, but which I've resigned myself to now; again, there's gore and sexual tension aplenty; again, you feel slightly dirty reading it.  I'll leave it there...

Solar, on the other hand, is a very different kettle of fish.  Michael Beard is a slob of a man, a paunchy fellow with several failed marriages (and one on the rocks), a miscreant with little conscience and not much of a heart.  Oh yes, and he has a Noble Prize for Physics.  Over a decade of deterioration, both in the earth's climate and Beard's physical state, McEwan guides the reader gently through the contradictions of public brilliance and private catastrophe - and it's an intriguing journey.

This novel represents another trip into the science domain for McEwan, after his neurosurgery-led Saturday, however Solar is anything but a dull read.  I didn't have high hopes for it after some less-than-positive reviews, and the usual earth-shattering moment of change (involving a polar bear) had me rolling my eyes at his predictability, but the longer the novel went on, the more I started to enjoy it.

The main reason for this is that the novel is more about Beard than about the actual plot, and he is a brilliant character.  Larger-than-life is a fairly common cliché, but one which is fully justified when discussing McEwan's plump, disgusting protagonist.  Unable to bring himself to do anything as energetic as throwing a sandwich wrapper in the bin (or even just not dropping it on the floor in the first place), his flat undergoes a similar decay to his appearance, leaving him wishing he could just incinerate the whole thing.

He lies, philanders, cheats, plagiarises, disappoints... and yet, McEwan pulls off the feat of making him appear a loveable rogue, a rather genial fellow, before a sleight of hand every once in a while pulls his nasty side back into view.  The blurb on the back uses the word 'satirical', which I suspect is a way of saying that a writer known for his serious novels has produced something amusing for once, and there was certainly a lot to smile at here.  By the end of the novel, I was very interested in Beard's fate - which is not to say that I wanted him to get off scot-free :)

Of course, there is a more serious side to Solar, and it is the idea that we are all doomed because of the human race's inability to be truly altruistic, forward thinking and (above all) organised.  If our greatest minds are more concerned with making millions of dollars from patents and are prepared to lie, cheat and steal to prevent the move towards cleaner energy, how are we ever going to actually tackle the problem of climate change?  Especially if we can't even keep our living rooms clean...  Saturday made a lot of the idea of our world as an ageing person, with clogged-up arterial roads and decaying buildings leading to a rotting planet, and Solar is no more optimistic (although a lot more cynical and funnier).

The writing, as always, is crisp and elegant, despite the occasional jarring moment caused by the American version which my Australian library has somehow acquired.  As well as the expected spelling changes, the odd vocabulary choice leaped out at me, disturbing my concentration (I am fairly sure that no English writer, especially one like McEwan, would really have used the word 'dumpster'...).  While I'm not really surprised that Solar didn't make the cut for the Booker prize shortlist, it is nevertheless a lot better than I expected, a confident, relaxed, mature work from an accomplished writer (and very different from The Cement Garden!).

It culminates in a cliffhanger ending, with Beard beset with troubles on all sides.  As the paunchy physicist looks desperately for a way out of his problems (in a scene which is less high literature than Benny Hill), the reader wonders just how he's going to talk himself out of it this time.  The bigger question of course is planetary, rather than personal.  Just how are we going to get ourselves out of the mess we've made of the Earth.  This, along with Michael Beard's messy dilemma, is a problem for another day...

Wednesday 2 February 2011

January 2011 Wrap-Up

In the first (and, quite possibly, the last) post of its sort, here is my monthly rundown for January, 2011.  Peruse, analyse, comment - enjoy :)

Total Books Read: 11
New: 10
Rereads: 1

From the Shelves: 5
From the Library: 5
On the Kindle: 1

Novels: 7
Novellas: 3
Non-Fiction: 1

Non-English Language: 4 (3 Japanese, 1 German)
In Original Language: 1 (German)

Murakami Challenge: 1 (1/3)
Aussie Author Challenge: 2 (2/12)
Victorian Literature Challenge: 2 (2/15)
Japanese Literature Challenge: 3 (12/1)

Tony's Recommendation for January is:  Kenzaburo Oe's The Silent Cry