… a strip of fly paper,” says the sage in the first book I mumble about here, “Every thought, however fleeting and inconsequential, sticks to it.” But later for that.
Languor, laxity (spell-check suggests laxative), and a lack of discipline in the powerful face of television narratives – yea, even unto Lovejoy and Pie in the sky, the unique qualities of which were hidden from me first time around – those things and a tendency for procrastination, combined with the regular practice of grand-parentry, all these things cry out for a timely return to the brevity that once existed here on Lillabullero. Well, that’s the intention anyway.
Tan Twang Eng‘s novel The garden of evening mists (2012) was last month’s Book Group book. In as much as we probably talked more about this book – without going off at tangents – than any other, it certainly engaged most of us, but I wasn’t the only one who concluded after all the discussion that my mixed feelings and confusion about it remained un-un-mixed, albeit with amendments therein. And life is too short for a clarifying re-read.
But I’m not sorry to have given the book its reading time, though. Those critics’ words on the cover certainly apply some of the time (though Reading Group members didn’t necessarily agree to which parts). Rich and indeed over-rich similes abound (you can judge for yourself later on here). It’s set in Malaya, and one gets to feel and learn a lot about the place, its history, and the times. Senses are mobilised: the garden, the tea plantation, the mountains, the rain forest.
There are three time-lines running for Yun Ling, a recently retired Cambridge educated judge suffering from the early stages of aphasia, who is the narrative centre of the book. It has to be said for a long time I had to keep reminding myself she’s a woman; the author is a man. It’s a curiously detached voice a lot of the time. Anyway, (mid-1980s?) she returns to the place in the country where many years previously she had spent time with the remarkable Arimoto, a Japanese gardener who is introduced with the book’s humdinger opening line: “On a mountain above the clouds once lived a man who had been the gardener of the Emperor of Japan.” In order to counter her aphasia she chronicles her time spent as his apprentice during the anti-Communist emergency in the 1950s. Both time streams hark back to her earlier traumatic experiences as a teenager in a Japanese slave camp in World War 2, with various characters, and/or their friends or relatives tangling relationships over all three. I’m abdicating on the actual plot details.
Quite where Arimoto fits in with the grand historical narrative of Japan’s war effort – what one Book group member rather harshly described as “the descent into Dan Brown territory” – is ambiguous, but his is the remarkable presence that dominates the book. He’s a master gardener in the classic Japanese tradition – loads of fascinating detail about shakkei, or “borrowed scenery” and the like – who ritually starts the day with a bit of zen in the art of archery (but is also taking blood pressure tablets). He and Yun Ling become lovers but of that side of their life nothing is revealed. Having spoken of the philosophy of Lao Tzu he just one day – the garden is finished? – makes a Lao Tzu-like disappearance and Yun Ling returns to Kuala Lumpar until when the novel starts. His sketches (oh yeah, he did that pretty well too) play a big part in the final action.
It’s a novel of increasing moral complexity, a bit of a thriller, a spiritual fable and a consideration of the notion of memory, detached and yet in its setting sumptuous, a haunting sequence of tableaux running back and forth. Along the way you get a look at the small details of imperialism and colonialism, and racial and community tensions in Malaya: a ‘banana’? – a Chinese who was yellow on the outside, white inside. The conduct of the British in the Boer War is thrown into the mix, and I was ignorant about the Malayan Emergency of the ’50s, when the Brits (yup, us again) reined in the (British trained) Communist brigades who had been, in Malaya, the ones who successfully fought against the Japanese on the ground. There is an extraordinary tale within a tale of a Japanese flying instructor falling in love with the young man who was scheduled to fly the last kamikaze mission of the war; and of the proud aircraft designer angry about the sloppy production values that were allowed in the making of the planes that the kamikaze pilots flew. All sorts of details like these make for a fascinating, if at times frustrating book. And I haven’t even mentioned horimono, the Japanese art of whole body tattoos.
I mentioned the language, the similes, earlier. Fine writing, sheer poetry, or, oh give it a rest, won’t you? Just three of my responses to stuff like this:
In the shallows, a grey heron cocked its head at me, one leg poised in the air, like the hand of a pianist who had forgotten the notes to his music.
He skims a large magnifying glass over the first print, distorting the shapes and colours beneath like the lights of a city skyline seen through a rain-splattered window.
… he pointed to the barbed wire strung around the fence. ‘A weed that is strangling the country. It seems to have sprouted everywhere.’
So much for the brevity of which I spoke. Which means the second book here gets short shrift where normally I might have given it more time and sprayed choice quotes all over the place. But Harry Bingham‘s Talking to the dead (Orion, 2012) is the first of a sequence and there’s a fair chance I shall be returning to the young peppermint tea drinking Detective Constable Fiona Griffiths’ professional and social life soonish.
The locale is a recognisable Cardiff and surrounds (where my wife comes from). Fiona – Fi – tells her tale in the present tense, and there’s a nice taste of the Philip Marlowe at the back of her. If you like the sound of:
‘I got a note this evening. Through my letterbox. It said, WE KNOW WHERE YOU LIVE.’
‘That’s a bit of a cliché, isn’t it?’
‘I wasn’t asking for literary criticism.’
or this, arising from a text from a suspect on a phone she shouldn’t be using professionally:
I love everything about that message. I like the fact that it’s properly spelled and punctuated. I like the repetition of ‘fuck off’. Not elegant, but pithy, and you can give me pith over elegance every day of the week.
then I’m guessing you’re open to her crime fighting tales, stretching the bounds of credibility as the plot and action do at various points (like her escape of disciplinaries for starters – “I don’t think the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed DC Griffiths would thank me for fessing up to her evil twin, the house-breaking, phone-stealing, bad DC Griffiths“) as the story unfolds.
So yes, she’s – that inevitable word for a fictional female cop – feisty; and sassy with it too. But also vulnerable, because her main ‘thing’ – fictional detectives have to have a ‘thing’ – is that for two of her teenage years she suffered from Cotard’s Syndrome, an extreme manifestation of depersonalisation, a feeling that you don’t exist, that you are dead. In Talking to the dead she spends an extraordinary clandestine night in the room in the mortuary where two victims in the case’s bodies are being kept, but there is reassuringly no hint of the supernatural. Fi’s struggles with the experience of living on what she calls ‘Planet Normal’ are nicely done. Her other two ‘things’ are a secret buddy and guru – Lev, ex-Israeli secret service martial arts expert she met at Cambridge while getting her philosophy degree (not that you’d notice) – and her close family, including a dad, whose current success and local helpful influence was not exactly achieved by legitimate lawful means (but we don’t talk about that), and a cod Welsh mum.
The crimes are unpleasant – people smuggling, sex trade, high-level gangsterism – but related with candour and compassion. As a police procedural it struck me as refreshing – “I have no musical taste at all” – effective and fun.
Before the proceedings kicked off at the October Scribal I think I saw spoken word artist Rob Auton taking a close-up of the mic on his phone, begging the question, among many, of the existence of some sort of archive. Wednesday’s Wolves – all two of them – scored with some great harmonies on original material and showed how a cajon can be a musical instrument, more than just percussion, in its own right. Rob started with a more frenetic version of his delightfully exercise in logical absurdity Heaven food than the one on YouTube. With Rob you’re never quite sure where (or if) the stage persona ends. He wandered away from the mic at times. He said about how his nephew had learnt the word ‘orange’ since he’d last seen him, and wondered to himself: What have you done in that time? Which hit home vis-a-vis the grandparenting. He finished with A letter from Father Christmas, a long piece from his Sleep show; after the entertainment a brave and vulnerable work-out way beyond self-help book territory: “As a gift to me I would like you to attempt to become as comfortable within yourself when you are awake as you are when you are asleep.”
At the mid-October Vaultage John Howarth managed to be both suitably raw and skillfully accomplished in a set taking in blues, township and more sophisticated African musics – nice one. (Co-headliner on the poster was a no-show). Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize announcement earlier that day was celebrated by the performance of his When the ship comes in at dirge-like speed; anonymity to protect the guilty, but it wasn’t Pat.
Sweeter than Roses one Saturday at York House saw the welcome return of Mr Simpson’s Little Consort to York House, featuring a programme of music and readings from Shakespeare and others. This evening mostly as a consort of viols (small, medium and large; treble, tenor and a couple of bass viols, one with a pleasing figurehead of piratical appearance) and featuring soprano Cate McKee. Entertainment, a touch of education, and much charm. A couple of numbers – described as “mad music” – featured the bass viols up against one another. A sort of Tudor Duelling banjos.
A week later, same venue, someone had to do the actual Duelling banjos in a very different musical landscape. The fifth and broader flavoured Stony Breakdown featured five bands coming at Americana refreshingly from a variety directions of country and bluegrass. Standouts for me were a couple of the guitarists – some classic country picking from he of the Jackson Creek Band (all the way from Cambridge) and stylings taking in Django Reinhart and country swing from John Lee (who I’d only known before leading a jazz group from the keyboards) with Oakland County. It all blurs a bit in the memory, but hard to forget Stained Glass Blue Grass’s fine bluegrassification of Neil Sedaka’s Breaking up is hard to do; of course we joined in. Take a bow, too, the Rocky Road Pilgrims and the Band of Brothers. And that pint of Bucks Star’s Magnovinium 45, a dark ale, went down a treat.
Another brevity fail, then …