Monday, November 22, 2010

Living for text (Books - Once on a Moonless Night by Dai Sijie)

The search for two halves of a torn text, lettered in a mysterious, forgotten alphabet on a piece of silk and dropped from the door of a moving airplane, is the subject of Dai Sijie's Once on a Moonless Night. It is told through a series of diary entries that relate the memories of a woman who escapes her psychic pain by studying languages. This story is of her meeting a greengrocer in Maoist China who tells her a story of his mysterious father, a scholar of ancient Chinese history and texts, who wrote the story of the Chinese prince who once possessed this torn text. This tale is part adventure, part Chinese history, part love story of language. It is about people who literally live for for a text.

Its form is stories nested within stories. The prose is elegant and evocative, but it is complex. This is writing you have to pay attention to if you are to follow the plot:
At the top of the slope, in once white stone blackened by smoke and dust, was a statue of Mao in a raincoat that flapped in the east wind to symbolise political storms, while, perched limply on his head, was a Lenin hat with a visor in proportion to the size of his head, so large that one day a nest of straw and twigs caked in saliva and gastric juices appeared on it, complete with a swallow on a clutch of eggs. From the full height of its twelve metres the statue overlooked a clump of ugly single-storey administrative buildings: a police station from which the occasional isolated cry of despair could be heard as if from a psychiatric asylum; a post office where my grant arrived at the end of each month, a postal order for a pitiful sum; a small hospital; the Revolutionary Council where public records were registered, a haunting, sinister place I sometimes visited in my dreams, where I was married, registered the birth of my child, and where my death certificate was presented; the People's Bank; the People's Militia; the Community Arts Centre; a former library converted into a hall for political studies; and the premises of the Party Committee and the Communist Youth. The profane swallow that appeared on Mao's cap was shot and her nest destroyed. The anti-revolutionary trails of saliva and white droppings that had covered one of his ears, carving a diagonal torrent across his face and streaming untactfully all the way to the leader's astonishingly prominent chin, were meticulously cleaned, but, if the rumours are to be believed, the swallow's ghost, slightly smaller than the live bird, as if shrunken in death, zig-zagged across the sky at night, even in winter, making piercing, mournful sounds like the shriek of a rusted saw, tormenting the ears of insomniacs.
For a while I thought I would not make it through this novel, because the writing demanded so much attention - plot details, atmosphere, historical context, character backstory, flash forward, are jumbled into single paragraphs. Not that I don't love complexity, but the fact that I'm forced to read most of my fiction these days in multiple short sittings, sometimes with several days between them, made the threads hard to pick up. However, I did read the last 150 pages of Once on a Moonless Night in two successive sittings and that is when I found myself getting caught up in the tender, multi-generational love story, the highly convincing fictional scholarship, and the drama of the plot. It is smartly entertaining and satisfyingly multi-layered and I will certainly seek out another of Dai Sijie's novels.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Little people, noblesse oblige, ancient manuscripts, and other oddities... (Books - The Borrowers by Mary Norton)

Something recently prompted me to return to a childhood favorite, Mary Norton's The Borrowers, although I cannot for the life of me remember what it was. I am glad that I indulged myself in this stroll down memory lane as Norton's story is a richly imagined tale about the fear of change, and its inevitability. Her cast of characters, a family of miniature people living beneath the kitchen floorboards of a once-grand house in a nest-like apartment, their furniture made of matchboxes, and the walls decorated with postage stamps, items all "borrowed" from the house beneath which they live. The Borrowers must lead a careful life, venturing upstairs for not only their decor, but their food and drink as well, carefully avoiding the eyes of the dangerous "human beans." It is the children, the daughter of the Borrowers and the orphaned boy living upstairs, who have a forbidden meeting and eventually force the Borrowers to uproot themselves and venture into the great unknown.
"Borrowing," he said after a while. "Is that what you call it?"

"What else could you call it?" asked Arrietty.

"I'd call it stealing."

Arietty laughed. She really laughed. "But we are Borrowers," she explained, "like your a-a human bean or whatever it's called. We're part of the house. You might as well say that the fire grate steals the coal from the coal scuttle."

"Then what is stealing?"

Arietty looked grave. "Don't you know?" she asked. "Stealing is - well, supposing my Uncle Hendreary borrowed an emerald watch from Her dressing-table and my father took it and hung it up on our wall. That's stealing."

"An emerald watch!" exclaimed the boy.

"Well I just said that because we have one on the wall at home, but my father borrowed it himself. It needn't be a watch. It could be anything. A lump of sugar even. But Borrowers don't steal."

"Except from human beings," said the boy.

Arriety burst out laughing; she laughed so much that she had to hid her face in the primrose. "Oh dear," she gasped with tears in her eyes, "you are funny!" She stared upward at his puzzled face. "Human beans are for Borrowers - like bread's for butter!"
It seems that Borrowers have the same peculiar skill most humans have in thinking that the world and all its inhabitants exists for their use, not even bothering to question the veracity of their securely held belief, and not even considering that there might indeed be a point of view of held by those who are the recipients of their actions. As I read this story it made me think of so many human arrangements - noblesse oblige, the British imperialist certainty that the natives of other lands could only benefit from British rule, British law, British christianity, and, often newly drawn British borders (of course there have been similar fantasies indulged in by the Dutch, the French, and my own country too), religious missionary activities partake of the same, certain, self-focused zeal . It is a convenient belief and one Norton gently parodies in this novel for young readers. At the same time, the Borrowers are our protagonists, so one experiences the actions and the consequences from both sides of the equation, without any pious lecturing on Norton's part. Indeed, the Borrowers in written in pleasantly old-fashioned prose that imparts a cozy, book-at-bedtime glow to the story. I was delighted to revisit both the story and its themes in a book for children, as so much children's literature this days is openly prescriptive. I may yet visit some of The Borrowers sequels in the future.

This lead to another young reader's novel, coincidentally also about little people - Mistress Masham's Repose by fantasy fiction giant, T. H. White. While I'm enjoying the whimsy of White's narration, I'm having a hard time entering the world of his young heroine and so found myself switching to Once on a Moonless Night, Dai Sijie's atmospheric tale of an ancient document that holds some mysterious power over the people who come in contact with it.

I came across this book at a favorite New York bookstore - McNally Jackson - a little while ago, browsing their "recommended" shelf. This was something I did several times per week and now I so rarely get to visit bookstores, especially ones with personalities and staffs who read. Dai Sijie's tale is written in an elegant prose (translated from French) and casts its own enticing spell. This one may have me hooked.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Tweens in Space (Books - Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce)

The folks at Edify Media were kind enough to send me an copy of Frank Cottrell Boyce's novel for young readers (8 - 12 says the marketing) - Cosmic.
Mom, Dad - if you're listening - you know I said I was going to the South Lakeland Outdoor Activity Center with the school?

To be completely honest, I'm not exactly in the Lake District.

To be completely honest, I'm more sort of in space.

I'm on this rocket, the Infinite Possibility. I'm about two hundred thousand miles above the surface of the Earth. I'm all right . . . ish.

I know I've got some explaining to do. This is me going it.

I lied about my age.
That's the set-up, in a nutshell. Liam is nearly thirteen, and like most thirteen-year-olds he plays video games (World of Warcraft) incessantly, is sometimes absurdly impractical and lacks the ability to imagine even the simplest of consequences for his actions. However, unlike most thirteen-year-old boys, he is over six feet tall, shaves, and is verbally precocious, so he enjoys pretending to be the father of a friend, a girl his age named Florida, so he can do grown-up things like take cars for a test drive. What he decides to do is pose as his own father to win a telephone-company sponsored contest for a parent-child duo to take a thrill ride in space. Liam and his "daughter," whose brain can do nothing other than remember factoids of celebrity gossip, join three other fathers and their pathologically over-achieving sons in China and eventually fly into space.

The plot is a direct-lift from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. I didn't mind that, as it is similarly imaginative, but it is recognizable. Boyce gets a lot of comic mileage out of the kid-as-parent premise. Just before leaving home, Liam steals his father's copy of Talk to Your Teen. When he must assume something of a real parental role toward the other children in the story that's when things in this book become interesting. Cosmic has comedy, suspenseful adventure, and even a poignant moment or two in its appreciation of parents (Boyce's dedication is to his own parents) but will this be appreciated by a 12-year-old? Anything that had the message "appreciate your parents and all they have done for you" could be difficult for a 12-year-old to swallow. The laughs too seem very much from the point-of-view of an older observer who appreciates that delicate borderland teens inhabit - partly a child, partly adult - and how clumsy they seem as they transverse it.

My point is that I very much enjoyed Cosmic for its comedy and its wisdom - not only does it suggest that quickly growing young boys may sometimes still need their parents, it is also an appreciation of when children can be wiser than their parents - however I don't know if the book I read would be the same book that a reader of the target age would read. I don't think that 8-12 year olds are too dumb to get this story, but I think they would have read a different book than I, and I don't know what that might be. So find a child of 8-12 and ask them! Finally. I have to say that I found it implausible that the thoughts of a boy of nearly 13 (with a beard) did not stray even once to a subject remotely amorous or carnal. Gimme a break. That aside, Cosmic was a swift-moving adventure with more than a few good laughs and very entertaining for this adult reader.