Journey to the East
The first half of 2010 looks like an exciting time for Asia-themed fiction, while heavyweights such as Carey, McEwan and Martel will also give us new works
By Clarissa Tan
ONE approaches a phrase like “Asian literature” with some trepidation. It is an infinitely rubbery term, encompassing as it does works by Asian authors about Asia, works by Western authors on Asia, works by Asian authors in the West, and all the permutations in between. It seems parochial, even ethnocentric, to single out works of fiction by some slippery definition based vaguely on continent of origin. Good literature, after all, belongs to the world.
Still, there seems to be good reason to group Asian literary fiction as such. Firstly, many of these books, with their jacket covers depicting dragons or geisha and their titles that evoke kitchen gods or mangoes, obviously market themselves in this manner. And who can blame them? Publishing is a tough business, and one must find a niche. Secondly, in an industry still overwhelmingly weighted toward Western authors and books, it seems fair to address the imbalance a bit in favour of one’s own region.
In this sense 2010, especially the first half of it, looks like a robust time for Asia-themed literary works, many by first-time authors. One book that lies at the end-2009 beginning 2010 cusp, but which Singapore bookstores will start stocking in January, is Eugenia Kim’s The Calligrapher’s Daughter. This debut novel, which has drawn praise from many quarters including The Washington Post, is inspired by the life of the author’s mother. It is about Najin Han, the privileged daughter of a calligrapher, who is determined to carve her own destiny in early 20th century occupied Korea.
Another book published at the turn of the year is Erick Setiawan’s Of Bees and Mist which, the publicity material tells us, draws from the author’s childhood experiences and is about “the love and loss between three generations of women in a mystical, magical land inspired by Chinese values, Indonesian superstitions and American ideology.”
Also in January, we can expect Su Tong’s The Boat to Redemption and Madhav Mathur’s The Diary of an Unreasonable Man. The Suzhou-born Su, one of China’s best-selling novelists, shot to fame in 1993 when Zhang Yimou's film of his novella Raise the Red Lantern was nominated for an Oscar. Boat, according to the synopsis, is about how “disgraced Secretary Ku has been banished from the Party after it has been officially proven that he does not have a fish-shaped birthmark on his bottom and is therefore not the son of a revolutionary martyr, but the issue of a river pirate and a prostitute.”
Diary, in turn, is described by its publicity blurb as “bold, fresh and darkly comic”. Set in Mumbai, the book deals with the antics of Pranav Kumar, an advertising executive who is also an aspiring writer, an anarchist and a fugitive of the police. A debut author, Mathur divides his time between his hometown of Delhi and Singapore, where he works as a banker. The film rights to his book have already been bought by Bollywood director Anurag Kashyap.
Come May, we will have Jean Kwok’s Girl In Translation. Another debut novel, Kwok’s “deeply moving” book seems to jive closely with the author’s own experiences as a girl who follows her immigrant family from Hong Kong to Brooklyn, New York.
The coming year will also see new works by some of the most honoured names in literary fiction. Peter Carey, twice winner of the Booker Prize, will in February release Parrot and Olivier in America, a funny portrait of how a French aristocrat and an itinerant painter are brought together by their travels in America.
Ian McEwan, he of Amsterdam and Atonement fame, presents us with Solar in March. The book deals with Michael Beard, a Nobel prize-winning physicist whose best work is behind him. Beard’s professional and personal worlds collide in a freak accident, allowing him to extricate himself from his marital mess, reinvigorate his career and save the world from environmental disaster. Said to be a “profound and stylish” book (did we expect anything but?), the action will take the reader from the Arctic Circle to the deserts of New Mexico.
Yann Martel, who gave the world the biggest-selling Booker ever with the Life of Pi, will be back in April with Beatrice and Virgil. The novel is about a man called Henry who gets embroiled with a taxidermist, a donkey called Beatrice and a howler monkey called Virgil. Along the way, we are promised, “Martel asks profound moral and philosophical questions about the nature of love and evil.”
April definitely cannot be the cruellest month, as it will also bring us The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell. Mitchell, whose works have been shortlisted for the Booker, the Guardian First Book, the James Tait Black Memorial and the Costa Novel Of The Year prizes (among others), has set his latest work at the end of the 18th century. De Zoet is a junior clerk who disembarks on the tiny island of Dejima, the Dutch East India Company's remotest trading post in a Japan.
The enigmatic Don DeLillo will present us with Point Omega – about a secret war advisor who has gone in search of space and time in a desert “somewhere south of nowhere” – in February. Bret Easton Ellis, who has cited DeLillo as one of his influences, offers us Imperial Bedrooms in June. In 1985, Ellis had stunned and disturbed with Less Than Zero, which chronicled the consequences of hedonism among the bereft youth of 1980s Los Angeles. Now, 25 years later in Imperial, Ellis returns to the same characters as they face an even greater period of disaffection – their own middle age.
Mid-year also brings us The Changeling by Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburo Oe. Changeling is described as “an ambitious, sweeping novel about friendship and the distance we are prepared to travel to preserve it”. Translated by Deborah Boehm, it is about how a writer in his 60s, Kogito, rekindles a childhood friendship with his estranged brother-in-law, Goro. As they write to each other, Goro sends Kogito a case of cassette tapes onto which he has recorded reflections on their friendship. As Kogito listens one night, he hears something that unsettles him profoundly: “I'm going to head over to the Other Side now.”
Over at the ‘blockbuster’ end of things, we can expect some highly popular books to sweep into our consciousness this year. The month of March will see Danielle Trussoni’s Angelology, which blends biblical lore, the myth of Orpheus and the Miltonic visions of Paradise Lost into “a riveting tale of ordinary people engaged in a battle that will determine the fate of the world.” Columbia Pictures has already bought the movie rights, and the film will apparently be overseen by the executive producers who gave us The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons.
There is also Tiger Hills by Sarita Mandanna, which we are assured made waves at the 2009 London Book Fair and is a kind of “The Thorn Birds meets A Suitable Boy”. The novel is set in a coffee plantation in Coorg, southern India, in the 19th Century. June should bring us My Name is Memory by Ann Brashares, touted as “a magical, mysterious and heartbreaking story of true love for fans of The Time Traveler’s Wife and Twilight.”
Ken Follett, beloved author of The Pillars of the Earth, is due to give us Fall of Giants in September. This book, which will be published in more than six countries simultaneously, follows the destinies of five families – one American, one Russian, one German, one English and one Welsh – through the First World War and the Russian Revolution. It is to be the first novel of Follet’s Century trilogy.
If you’re into something more startling and off the beaten track, look out for Chris Cleave’s Little Bee. The Simon & Schuster website for the book says mysteriously that too much of the plot cannot be revealed, affirms that “once you have read it, you’ll want to tell everyone about it”, then begs you not to share the storyline either, as “the magic is in how it unfolds”. We can say for sure, however, that Little Bee – if you’ll pardon the terrible pun – has already created a buzz.
Have a Happy New Year of reading.
Images of Beatrice and Virgil, Point Omega, and Solar are from Pansing: all other images from Penguin Singapore.
List junkies will also enjoy The Guardian's piece on the best books to look forward to in 2010.