Monday, August 20, 2007

Twan Eng's Booker Update

Booker season continues and I'm at the starting line hoping to complete the marathon read so that opinions can be expressed before the shortlist is announced but don't think in all honesty I am going to get very far. A good book won't be rushed and I'm a slow reader anyway.

Fortunately some of the titles are already in the shops (I've checked with Kinokuniya and MPH) and I bet the rest can't be far behind. (But who but me, and maybe Animah, is mad enough to want the lot?) I've begun with Peter Ho Davies The Welsh Girl and am experiencing deja vu.

I've read the first two chapters before ... but where? All I can think is that they were in one of the British Council's New Writing collections, but not one i can find on my shelves. Can anyone enlighten me??

Anyway how's Twan Eng's book faring? It's still there in the amazon.co.uk bestseller list (the only Booker book in there apart from McEwan's, tipped as favourite!). It looks like the book is getting the popular vote.

The Telegraph has links to reviews of all 13 titles (the so-called "Booker Dozen") here.

Ed Lake reviews The Gift of Rain and has mixed feelings about it.
... the detached, aesthetic air, concentration on the visual and racy, episodic plotting -might perhaps have been more naturally realised in a decent Manga production.
Ouch! But he is taken with its:
... wistful and surprisingly earnest supernaturalism. Its characters all seem to have met in previous lives, to be haunted by ancient prophecies, or to be cursed to turn into one another. ... The bittersweet mood is heightened by the chinoiserie of the metaphorical palette - puddles resemble dragon scales, voices sound like wind-chimes, and even a kick in the kidneys produces calligraphy: a pain that flares "like red ink splashed on paper". The effect is almost psychotically tasteful.

Closer to home, Haliza Hashim Doyle writes about Twan Eng in the weekend edition of the Malay Mail.

And Twan himself sent me this more than enthusiastic review by Wilhem Snyman the Cape Town Post (no doubt his local paper for the time being!)
Set in the agonising years of Malaya’s occupation by the Japanese during World War II, from February 1942 to September 1945, Tan Twan Eng places at the centre of his story a young man, Philip Hutton, half English, half Chinese and his friendship with a high-ranking Japanese official before and during the brutal occupation of the island of Penang and its capital Georgetown.

As Tan Twan Eng has mentioned in interviews, he was influenced by many authors, not least of whom W. Somerset Maugham. One can discern the similarly deft objectivity and thorough characterization in Eng’s work as well.

The young protagonist, Philip, is torn between his patrician English world and his equally patrician Chinese world, with the result that somehow within himself he must coalesce these two seemingly contradictory worlds. Yet he remains an outsider looking into the British colonial establishment while at the same time being part of it, yet not fully accepted as he embraces his Chinese cultural heritage in tandem. Almost as a way of trying to resolve these inner conflicts he embarks on a dangerous relationship with the mysterious Endo-san, the enigmatic Japanese who hires an off-shore island from Philip’s father.

The relationship develops further as the mysteries and discipline of Japanese martial arts are imparted to the young Philip, as Endo-san becomes the young man’s spiritual guide and mentor. War clouds loom and Philip has to choose between his loyalty to his family and his relationship to someone rapidly being perceived as the enemy.

The war starts on December 7th 1941 as the Japanese forces attack Kota Bahru in northern Malaya , routing the ill-prepared dilly-dallying, shilly-shallying British forces before them. Soon Penang is invaded and the British residents – in a well-documented act of ignominy - rush for the ships to take them to Singapore , Ceylon and beyond, leaving the Chinese and Malays at the mercy of the arch-enemy, Japan . But Philip’s father and family remain and Philip has to choose where his loyalties lie and court censure as he collaborates with the Japanese in order to protect his family.

That’s the plot in simple terms – Tan Twan Eng has taken the raw material of history and woven a deeply moving tale of a man’s life. We meet Philip as an elderly man, recounting and explaining himself, while at the same time a tension is maintained throughout as we follow Philip’s anguish, ambiguity and ambivalence as he navigates his way through the treacherous waters of betrayal and loyalty and simply growing up in extraordinary times.

We meet Philip very much as Somerset Maugham writes of a certain kind of individual who has experienced much in life, in Gentleman in the Parlour: “They have a life in themselves that they keep apart, and there is a look in their eyes, as it were turned inwards, that informs us that this hidden life is the only one that signifies to them. And now and then their eyes betray a weariness with the social round into which hazard or the fear of seeming odd has for a moment forced them. They seem then to long for the monotonous solitude of some place of their predilection where they can be once more alone with the reality they have found”.

Tan Twan Eng reveals just such a man to us in the elderly Philip, while at the same time we join the young Philip on his perilous journey to self-awareness, to the spiritual mastery of his realm, a mastery ironically imparted to him by the one who used him to reveal military secrets to the Japanese.

A further level of significance of this seminal novel is that in the annals of Malaysian literature, and to use that hackneyed term, “post colonial” literature, The Gift of Rain is an example of literary maturity, where the contradictions of a colonial past are grafted onto a vision for the
present and the future, without rancour but rather with grace, stylistic elegance and compassion. The Gift of Rain is a coming to terms with the past, in this case with Malaysia ’s darkest hour when Malaya and its peoples were abandoned by their British colonial masters, who couldn’t protect her subjects, and delivered them to the wrath of the Japanese after an ill-conceived military defence.

Asked why he chose that period in history rather than contemporary Malaysia, Eng points out in that so little has been written about the war period in Malaya, especially by Malaysians. There are famous novels such as Tanamera and The Singapore Grip and of course Nevil Shute’s famous A Town Like Alice , but these were not written by Malaysian authors.

Significant too is that in Tan Twan Eng we have an author of a younger generation exploring the history of his country and writing for the present generation, dipping into the past and the present with effortless ease, all the while arresting one’s attention, maintaining suspense and recreating the bygone world of Penang with its rich and layered history. Penang, an entrepot of the British empire and founded by Francis Light in the 1780s, called peoples from all over Asia to its shores. Throughout Eng gives us the street names, (Armenia Street, Campbell Street, Bangkok Street etc) and various recipes associated with Penang’s Georgetown, taking the reader into Philip’s world, and making this novel not only an evocation of a personal odyssey, but also a homage to one of the world’s most inspiring historical settings. Says Eng:
“I was born in Penang and I’ve always wanted to write about Penang. People will argue that I don’t know the place as it was in the 1940s. But things like street names and places haven’t changed. If you wanted to write about Kuala Lumpur, everything has changed, buildings have been torn down. If you read The Gift of Rain and then take a trip to Penang all the places referred to are all still there. I suppose you could say I take a romantic, nostalgic view.”

However romantic or nostalgic the view Eng adopts, the novel reveals an emotional depth coupled with a heartfelt exploration of a dramatic moment in a community’s history and how war ravaged a hitherto relatively harmonious tranquility. A richly rewarding read.
But please dear world, he is not Mr. Eng, he is Mr. Tan! Please get his name right!!!!!

7 comments:

animah said...

Twan Twins Booker
Tan Wins Booker
Eng eggs Booker.
Ok, I'm in a mad mood today.

Poppadumdum said...

Don't put all your eggs in one booker, Animah! :-)))

bibliobibuli said...

scrambled or poached?

Poppadumdum said...

Sunny side up! :-)

john self said...

I'm one of the mad ones who has read all the Booker longlist, and Peter Ho Davies and Tan Twan Eng are both in my proposed shortlist. I did have a head start as I'd read five of the longlist before the list was announced.

My tip for the winner is The Welsh Girl, and Lloyd Jones's Mister Pip, Tan Twan Eng and Indra Sinha's Animal's People close behind.

And yes, I am one of the many Westerners referring to Tan Twan Eng as Mr Eng! Will fix immediately!

Anonymous said...

Interesting choices John Self, but tasteful ones! :-) The Welsh Girl left me underwhelmed although the quality of the writing is near-faultless.

bibliobibuli said...

really nice to hear from you, john and am in awe of you managing to read your way down the longlist. i reckon i will manage another one, or if i try very hard, another two titles. ("animal's people" next) i haven't managed to get "mister pip" yet. it takes time for the books to be imported. animah has my copy of "the reluctant terrorist" and goodness knows when she'll be able to pass it to me. (she forgot at the last book club meet - very useful).

i wish there was longer between the announcement of the long list and the announcement of the shortlist. let's have time to get the copies and enjoy the books!

it would be great to see our mr. tan on the shortlist. i'm so chuffed that i was the first person to review it!