Cain – José Saramago

First published in the Portuguese language in 2009
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa in 2011

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This was my second attempt at reading this book. The first time, I don’t think I went past the first 20 pages, because the way Saramago had written it was simply too difficult for me to follow at that time. I realised quite early on that I needed to be quite still, mentally and emotionally, to be able to fully understand the flow of the words and phrases on the pages. So this second time when I picked this book up, I had already somewhat prepared myself to dive in and indulge in the prose.

I was not wrong the first time.

First, the structure, or manner, in which Saramago narrated this story was very similar to Blindness. I can’t really recall how Seeing read, but I have my own copy of Blindness with me at home, and simply by glancing through a few pages, I could see that Cain had a very similar storytelling method. Everything felt like it was meshed into one, and if you lost your attention somewhere, you simply had to go back and reread it again. This is not a book that you can meander and wander around. It’s a book that you need to focus to understand. And even then, it’s not guaranteed that you will comprehend fully.

Cain starts with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The story very quickly moves on to tell how they were thrown out of the garden for eating the forbidden fruit, and following that, how they managed to learn to survive in the harsh world of reality, when all this while they had only known the perfect Garden. Cain is born, as is Abel, and after an unfortunate incident which resulted in Cain killing his brother. That’s where the “real” story starts: as Cain wanders around, he constantly finds himself in different “presents”—he doesn’t consider that he’s travelling to the past or the future, it’s merely a different “present”.

The people and events that he meets and comes across are, I would imagine, loosely based on the contents of the Bible. But because I’m not as familiar with the Book as I would like to be, I cannot comment on how much of what is written is really based on the contents of the Bible, and how much is his own interpretation. But I still found it quite intriguing, this constant travel from one time to another, as well as his occasional chats with god.

It’s not an easy book to digest. But well worth the time.

V for Vendetta – Alan Moore

First published as a series of strips between 1982 and 1985
Published as a complete 10-episode series between 1988 and 1989 
Illustrated by David Lloyd and Tony Weare

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It’s been a long time since my last graphic novel. And even then, it was Habibi by Craig Thompson, which was extremely visual and, if I remember correctly, nowhere near as wordy as Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta. I had briefly caught the tail-end of the film a few years back, as part of a Guy Fawkes celebration thing, and I remember finding it quite interesting. But I kept shying away from reading the graphic novel because of Watchmen. I had glanced through a few pages of Watchmen, and there seemed to be so many things going on, and it was so wordy, I was just completely lost.

But anarchy is a concept I find quite interesting, especially after having read Fight Club recently. So I decided to take the plunge, and the chance, with this piece of work by Moore. And what a treat it was.

What really worked for me was the setting. The tyrannical organization that runs England in V is literally a body—the head is, of course, The Head, while the police, forensics, secret force and media were given names like The Eyes, The Ears, The Nose, Fingers and The Mouth. The ones in power are all corrupt, as they always are especially when there is nothing to keep the check-and-balance, and the people are scared. It’s the perfect setting for an anarchy waiting to happen.

Remember, remember, the fifth of November.

The story starts with a young girl, Evey, trying her luck at prostitution. She knows she’s taking a risk, as prostitution is a crime. To make matters worse, it’s also past curfew. She comes across a man and decides to try and seduce him, to take in her first client, but it turns out that he’s a Fingerman, and he has a few buddies with him. She’s immediately declared a criminal, and they try to force themselves on her (after all, they reason, she’s trying to prostitute herself anyway, which is a crime on top of being out during curfew), when a mysterious man in a Guy Fawkes mask comes to her rescue.

Evey’s life is forever changed. She had no one, coming into the story, and now, she’s been saved by the man who has more or less declared war against the powers-that-be when he blew up the Houses of Parliament.

V continues to make things happen, and while he remains an enigma and someone whose identity the people in power simply cannot fathom, he plants hints along the way, as if to add even more frustration to the investigation, as well as to point them in a certain direction. The ending was, I felt, a very powerful statement. “Ideas are bulletproof,” V says, and I felt that the entire ending sequence embodied that statement to the T.

I found myself still getting a little lost as I read the graphic novel. Sometimes I couldn’t really tell who was saying what, and the characters sometimes overlapped each other for me. One of the characters, who in hindsight was one of the more important ones pushing the plot forward, disappeared for so long that I almost forgot about him. But in the end, once I finished it and had a few days to mull over it, some of the sequences stayed fresh in my mind. The book was both exciting and scary. I found myself in a pinch, because I hated the government, but I wasn’t entirely sure I could stand behind the idea of complete anarchy.

Apparently, according to Wikipedia, Moore had this to say:

The central question is, is this guy right? Or is he mad? What do you, the reader, think about this? Which struck me as a properly anarchist solution. I didn’t want to tell people what to think, I just wanted to tell people to think and consider some of these admittedly extreme little elements, which nevertheless do recur fairly regularly throughout human history.

Maybe he was mad. I felt he was a little mad. After all, with all that he’s seen and been through, he would be mad if he wasn’t a little mad. I could see that. Was he wrong? Were his actions justified? Was his idea too extreme, too out there?

They are not easy questions, because answering them means digging deep into the dark corners of my heart and mind. So as I’m thinking about this, I realise that I’m still thinking about this two weeks after I put the book down.

Damn.

Fight Club – Chuck Palahniuk

First published in 1996

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In the new afterword that Palahniuk wrote for the 2006 Vintage UK version I have, this is what he says:

Really, what I was writing was just The Great Gatsby, updated a little. It was “apostolic” fiction — where a surviving apostle tells the story of his hero. There are two men and a woman. And one man, the hero, is shot to death.

It was a classic, ancient romance but updated to compete with the espresso machine and ESPN.

This book has been known as anything but a romance. And I don’t blame them. The details are gory, some of the acts are downright malicious, and there’s very little in there that obviously links back to the emotions and feelings that we often associate with romance—that fuzzy, wholesome, I’ll-love-you-forever kind of feeling.

But at the same time, there is also a certain charm to the broken characters in the book. Marla is almost beyond repair, and Tyler is such a tyrannic figure that you hate to love and love to hate him, yet you love-hate him anyway.

And then, of course, there’s the unnamed narrator. His version of the story is so skewed, so unreliable and so jumpy (I have no better words for this) that I often found myself wondering if he knew what he was talking about himself. He was here one minute, there the next, and he kept repeating this one phrase to justify the things he knew:

I know this because Tyler knows this.

I wouldn’t know until I’m on the last leg of the book the significance of this phrase. And I found it a stroke of genius. Suddenly everything tied back. Suddenly everything that didn’t make sense started to make some sense. Suddenly all that jumpiness was accounted for. Suddenly all the unreliability was explained.

Suddenly, I understood.

From the start of the book, the narrator painted a very unpleasant picture of Tyler. We saw all his weird and crazy ideas, his disregard for societal norms and his insistence on doing things his own way. Yet, the narrator also showed us his deep affection—an intense love, almost—for Tyler. Whether the narrator loved him for his crazy, or in spite of it, I couldn’t really tell. The narrator was drawn to Tyler, attached to him somehow, and because of this push-pull relationship, he also developed a love-hate feeling for the man.

In that way, it was very different from The Great Gatsby. Nick Carraway, the narrator, painted such beautiful pictures of Gatsby and Daisy, I couldn’t help but fall in love with them. In hindsight, both Gatsby and Daisy are also very much broken and a little wretched, but reading Nick’s narration of his time spent with those characters was like reading a fluffy romance. Everything was just so beautiful.

But the characters in Gatsby, like the characters in Fight Club, are equally damaged. And to make this kind of comparison, to put these two books side by side and think of how they are similar or different, gave me a slight shiver. The line between hate and love, between the light and dark sides, is so thin and invisible, it could very well not be there. A slight change in perspective, a small shift in the angle, and it’s a completely different narrative.

The Tyler character in Fight Club is an anarchist through and through. It makes me want to read V For Vendetta. Just for comparison.

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In the Afterword, Palahniuk mentions that Fight Club started out as a short story. Seven pages worth, all in Chapter 6. I reread that chapter, and I can definitely see how that is the anchor from which the whole book grew.

This is a book that will stay with you.

Dog Pound – Mamü Vies

First published in 2014

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I’ve only ever read a handful of English fiction books written by Malaysian authors. This may very well be because there is very little fiction being written in English in Malaysia. Or it could more possibly be my own ignorance. Whichever the case, I’m actively trying to read more by our local authors, in both Malay and English, so watch this space.

Anyway, back to Dog Pound, written by a good friend of mine. It starts with the end, or a scene very near the end, where an important man is found dead, and the person responsible for this death, Roy, is being taken away in an ambulance, heavily injured. From there, we move back in time to when Roy was first introduced to the world of underground boxing: Dog Pound.

Perhaps it is because Mamü is also a screenwriter and director, much of his writing reads like a dissection of scenes, sometimes with heavy doses of exposition. This works both for and against him, I feel. It’s nice to be able to visualise exactly what the room looks like, how each character is playing out on “screen”, and all the little details. But at the same time, it also takes away from potentially fast and high-tension scenes. Just like how it works in movies, tension is created when there’s little time to breathe, little time to concentrate on much else other than what’s happening immediately. Everything happens in seconds. On the page, that translates into the number of words and lines. The more words we spend explaining something, the less pressure there is on the character and reader. We have time to breathe, to digest, to pretend that things are happening in slow motion. That takes some of the suspense and thrill away.

There were some strings left untied at the end, and in a way, it almost felt as if Mamü was telling us that it’s not important. Those things don’t matter. And maybe they don’t. Some things that have happened in the past best just stay there where they belong.

As I was reading this book, though, I was consistently reminded of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. I’ve never read the book, but somehow I get the impression that they may be rather similar stories. I’ve just picked it off my shelves yesterday, so I’m looking forward to reading this next to see how they may compare.

A Concise English-Chinese Dictionary for Lovers – Xiaolu Guo

First published in 2007

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English is a bloody nightmare, isn’t it?

I have a very deep love for language, as I believe many of us book lovers do. My first love will always be English, though since I’ve managed to pick up Chinese along the way, it has come up to become a close second. I speak Malay, of course, and I’m still looking to learn a couple of new languages as I progress in life. Possibly Japanese and French. But that’s beside the point.

In A Concise English-Chinese Dictionary for Lovers, the narrator’s Chinese voice was so apparent, I could almost hear her speaking to me in that awkward Chinese sounding English, the blocky pronunciations and impossible grammar. I could feel her nervousness of being in a new country, her worry of not making sense trying to speak an alien language. I’ve been there, though it was the exact opposite. And it brought back memories of my speaking some very awkward Chinese to people who couldn’t understand why I looked the part, but couldn’t speak the language to save my life. A typical banana.

But then again, I come from a country where it’s not odd for someone to speak more than one language. And for many of us, we speak at least two, if not three. And perhaps it is because of this that the cultural significance of a certain language—its structures and forms, its foundations and roots—can get somewhat lost on us. In a way, I feel that I’ve taken language for granted. And this book has made me see how much beauty I’ve let slip by, simply because I’m multilingual.

In the beginning part of the book, Miss Z is still struggling to understand the new language and the way it is structured. She doesn’t understand it, because she doesn’t understand the culture behind it. In her mind, she knows Chinese, and the way a sentence is structured in Chinese reflects Chinese culture and thinking.

Chinese we starting sentence from concept of time or place. Order like this:

Last autumn on the Great Wall we eat barbecue.

So time and space always bigger than little human in our country. Is not like order in English sentence, “I,” or “Jake” or “Mary by front of everything, supposing be most important thing to whole sentence.

I never picked up on this small detail before. But when Miss Z spoke about it (the book really reads like she’s speaking to me through the pages, the author has done a terrific job), suddenly it became so apparent. And I came to wonder, perhaps it also reflects in the politics of our countries—communism where the community is priority, and democracy where the individual is king.

Then she spoke about gender bias.

English a sexist language. In Chinese no “gender definition” in sentence. For example, Mrs. Margaret says these in class:

“Everyone must do his best.”

“If a pupil can’t attend the class, he should let his teachers know.”

“We need to vote for a chairman for the student union.”

Always talking about mans, no womans!

No womans, indeed.

I’ve read in many places that learning a new language will lead you towards a special path to learn about a new culture. I never really understood how that worked. To me, I had always looked at language as simply a new way of speaking, of communicating. But I never thought of it as a means to understand someone else. To look at something from a different point of view, almost as if wearing weird spectacles.

Yet towards the end of the book, Miss Z tells us of the futility of it all, that learning a new language doesn’t guarantee that you will understand anything more than what you already do, that it doesn’t grant you immediate access to a different culture, that it takes more than just learning to speak my tongue to understand the way I think. And even without language barriers, even if we all spoke only one language, it still doesn’t mean that we can fully understand the person next to us, to completely comprehend their thoughts and ambitions and motives.

I try to learn more vocabularies to be able to communicate. I try to put the whole dictionary in my brain. But in this remote countryside, in this nobody’s wonderland, what’s the point of this? It doesn’t matter if one speaks Chinese or English here; it doesn’t matter if one is mute or deaf. Language is not important anymore. Only the simple physical existence matters in the nature.

A Modest Proposal – Jonathan Swift

First published in 1729
A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick

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I remember first reading this satirical essay almost 10 years ago when my sister brought it home as an assignment from school. She had read it and found it extremely funny, and thought that I would enjoy it. And I remember thinking that this Swift guy is really something else! This was written almost 300 years ago, and I can only imagine how bold it was to publish something like this back then. Even today, this kind of straight-up satire may be lost on some people.

A young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragout.

Yesterday, I was going through the Internet looking for some classic audiobooks to download for my workout sessions. It’s my first audiobook in a very long while, so I decided to start with something short. I found A Modest Proposal, and thought that it would be a good time to revisit this piece, being slightly short of 25 minutes.

I’m not sure if it’s because of the fact that I was multi-tasking (exercising and listening to a book is multi-tasking, no matter what anyone says), or that it’s been too long since my last audiobook, or that the reading was simply not great, or that the writing style didn’t fit the reading style. I found myself constantly lost during the reading, not sure whether he had gotten to the end of the sentence, or if he was saying what I thought he was saying. I was unable to understand some bits of it, some of the satire was completely lost on me, and at times, I found the reading to be too draggy, as if the reader was doing it on purpose to highlight a certain point, but for which I could not understand.

Being such a short piece, I sourced for it in written form online yesterday night, just so I could absorb the essay in its entirety, minus the reader. And it felt so much better. The humour was just as I had remembered it, and perhaps the satire felt even more obvious now that I’m reading it a second time 10 years later.

I’ve always wondered if audiobooks are simply not for me. I’ll have to try it again with another book soon.

Waiting – Ha Jin

First published in 1999

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Waiting is a story in which nothing happens, and yet at the same time, everything is happening. The three main characters in the story – Lin Kong, Shuyu (Lin Kong’s wife in the village) and Manna Wu (Lin Kong’s lover in the city) – are constantly waiting for something. And because they’re constantly in waiting mode, it seems as if nothing is happening, because they’re literally waiting for something to happen. Lin is waiting for the day his wife will finally agree to get a divorce, so that he can officially be with Manna. Manna, of course, is constantly waiting for the divorce to finally happen so that she can officially become Lin’s wife. And Shuyu, well, it seems as if she’s constantly waiting for Lin to love her.

In the midst of all this waiting, 18 years come and go. In these 18 years, Lin doesn’t get divorced, Manna doesn’t get to marry Lin, and Shuyu, well, she just goes through the motions of daily life. Nothing happens, nothing changes.

But 18 years have come and gone. Youth and naïveté is replaced by age, maturity and cynicism. Passion and urgency are lost, replaced with complacency and a quiet acceptance of fate. 18 years is a long time. And even if things don’t change, nothing ever stays the same.

Why didn’t Lin Kong just up and divorce his wife if he so wanted to be with Manna? Why did Shuyu hold on to this man knowing he didn’t love her, and why did she decide to patiently wait for him to return every year? Why did Manna, such a strong character with an even stronger personality, wait for Lin Kong, who seemed so subdued and reluctant? Why didn’t she simply give up and find herself someone else more worth her time?

Why did they all decide to wait? And why were they able to wait for 18 long years?

To me, that’s the essence of the book. Never once did I feel like the characters were doing something that I couldn’t understand. I knew exactly why Lin tried to divorce his wife every year, and why every year, Shuyu would refuse. I could feel the frustrations that Manna would have every year after Lin Kong returned to the city still a married man, and I could understand why she decided to wait for yet another year.

Unlike how many of us function today in this instant-news instant-everything world, this book gave me a reason to pause. Must we go about everything in warp speed? Are our bonds and ties so meaningless that we can cut them off simply by clicking the ‘unfriend’ button? Do we care so little, that we don’t care to wait any more?

Waiting is huge in my own life. I believe in the timing of things, in pacing and in being in the right place at the right time. I wait for things to fall into place. I wait for it to feel right. I wait for that click in my heart that tells me, yes, it’s time.

The New Yorker describes this book as “a suspenseful and bracingly tough-minded love story.” I think that’s quite apt. It’s not your typical boy-meets-girl-and-falls-desparately-in-love kind of love story. It’s a love story that’s full of little remorses and silly mistakes and deep, dark feelings.

Now he couldn’t help thinking, Why do people have to live like animals, eating and reproducing, possessed by the instinct for survival? What point is there in having dozens of sons if your own life is miserable and senseless? Probably people are afraid, afraid of disappearing from this world – traceless and completely forgotten, so they have children to leave reminders of themselves. How selfish parents can be. Then why does it have to be a son? Can’t a girl serve equally well as a reminder of her parents? What a crazy, stupid custom, which demands that every couple have a baby boy to carry on the family line.