The Year of the Metal Tiger: A review.

December 31, 2010 § Leave a comment

I review some of the main events this year in China at n+1, along with contributions from Yelena Akhtiorskaya, Siddhartha Deb, Eli S. Evans, Keith Gessen, Chris Glazek, Emily Gould, Elizabeth Gumport, Alice Gregory, Charles Petersen, Nikil Saval, Jonathan Watson, and Emily Wit.

Street Scene, Urumqi, 1957

December 27, 2010 § Leave a comment

Urumqi's Nan-Men (south gate) in 1910

 

Richard Hughes was a journalist who spent most of his life as a correspondent in Asia for  The Times, The Economist, and the Far Eastern Economic Review. During World War 2 he was thought by some to be a spy, and possibly a double agent. Given these suspicions, it is unsurprising that he ended up being fictionalised twice: Ian Fleming based the character of Dikko Henderson in You Only Live Twice on him; in John Le Carre’s The Honourable Schoolboy he appears as Craw. This is his from book Foreign Devil, a memoir. I quote this because a) it suggests how relations (not to say manners) have worsened in the city known as ‘beautiful pastureland’ and b) I have a weakness for this kind of prose.

It happened in ‘The Street of the Grey-Eyed Men’ during the tranquil noontime traffic ‘rush’. The inexpert Chinese driver of a bus loudly tooted his horn and frightened a nervous, highstepping white mare, ridden by a tough Kazakh tribesman. The horse reared, neighing, and fell. The horseman skillfully sprang clear, raised and soothed the mare, handed the reins with a bow to the chairman of a council of dignified nomads seated in converse in the gutter, walked calmly over to the halted bus, and, with deliberation but no visible anger, fetched the apologetic driver a fearful backhand clout over the nose. He then remounted, saluted his quietly approving audience in the gutter, and rode off. The Chinese driver wiped his nose, bowed first to the seated gallery, arose, turned and bowed next to the amused but friendly passengers, and drove off, without tooting.

Urumqi's South Gate in the 1960's

New photos from Yining

December 23, 2010 § 4 Comments

Hui shepherd in a Han graveyard

Some photos of the market and back streets in Yining, where I used to live. These were taken in April 2010- there are more up on my Flickr site.

Horse taxi

Traditional Uighur house

Meat

Snake-oil salesman

Old Hui mosque, new Uighur mosque

When to stop reading

December 21, 2010 § 1 Comment

I used to finish every book I began, no matter how bad it seemed. To stop reading would only compound the sense of failure the book had already inspired. I suppose that the failure, on my part, was in thinking that the book was worth reading in the first place; that a scan of its opening pages had not alerted me to the fact that it was misconceived/ cliched/badly plotted/ pretentious/narrated by a rabid dog that thought it was a hippo. There was also the fear that the book was not to blame, especially if it was part of the canon, or even just well-reviewed. Because we should always acknowledge the possibility that the fault lies with us, not the book (or at least that we share blame). We can ruin good books for ourselves by reading them last thing at night, when we are tired, or on a train where someone is talking too loudly, or simply by reading the book too quickly. And there are definitely great books that are very uneven, that have both wonderful and mediocre sections (e.g. Lanark and Ulyssess), and that the latter must be endured. Even with some of the very worst books, there is the increasingly desperate hope that the last 25 pages, when the spaceship lands, will turn out to be a tour de force that contains ‘some of the finest passages written in the English language since the end of the War’ (or some other hyperbole).

But a few years ago, after 120 pages of Memoirs of a Geisha, I decided to stop. The narrative premise was unconvincing, the writing was leaden, and there were hundreds of  books in my room. For me, this last point has become increasingly crucial. I will only be able to read a small fraction of the books I would like to read, and so to waste time on something that is less than wonderful seems ridiculous.

These days the difficulty is in deciding when to stop. I don’t, for example, read 50 pages and think ‘Shall I continue?’ If something is enjoyable, this question never arises. Usually it takes longer, especially if I think that the fault is partly mine, that I am just being obtuse. In the case of the book I most recently stopped- The Orchard Keeper (1965) by Cormac McCarthy -it was because I had read 5 or 6 other books by the author, and felt that I knew what to expect. This passage was decisive.

The boy followed him for a few paces, then quartered off to the creek again and the man watched him go, his legs disappearing in the mist, then the rest of him, so that he seemed to be gliding away  toward the line of willows marking its course like some nightwraith fleeing the slow reaching dawn until the man wasn’t sure that he had really been there at all. Then he came back with the pole and handed it to him.

Thanks, the man said.

They moved on across the field, through vapors of fog and wisps of light, to the east, looking like the last survivors of Armageddon.

(103-104 UK Picador edition)

Though this probably doesn’t seem bad (especially out of context), after reading 5 or 6 books written in this style, it now seems incredibly overblown, an attempt to make every event in the book into some portentous event. I’ve managed to deal with this kind of thing before, for example in All the Pretty Horses

The browsing horses jerked their heads up. It was no sound they’d ever heard before. In the gray twilight those retchings seemed to echo like the calls of some rude provisional species loosed upon that waste. Something imperfect and malformed lodged in the heart of being. A thing smirking deep in the eyes of grace itself like a gorgon in an autumn pool.

Why it should be a ‘gorgon’ is beyond me- it doesn’t fit any character’s point of view, not even the authorial voice, with its King James cadences. As a result it seems comical rather than resonant. In terms of the passage from The Orchard Keeper, I could probably have dealt with ‘nightwraith’ on its own, but the subsequent description a paragraph later of them being like ‘survivors of Armageddon’ was too much faux-epic for me.

And the other thing about ceasing to read is that it need not be a judgement on the author- I’ve enjoyed several of McCarthy’s books, and realise  this was his first novel. It’s just that I also have 2666, The Man Without Qualities, The Recognitions, In Search of Lost Time, Wolf Hall, and too many others staring at me from the shelf, and I don’t know what they contain.

Trailer for new Terence Malick film

December 17, 2010 § Leave a comment

If you didn’t like The Thin Red Line, Badlands, Days of Heaven, or The New World, judging from this trailer, you won’t like The Tree of Life either.

I happen to like the aforementioned films very much.

This comes out in May.

p.s. If the film runs slow or is pixellated, go here and watch it in HD. Which you probably should do anyway.

Summer in Baden-Baden

December 15, 2010 § Leave a comment

Summer in Baden-Baden by Leonid Tsypkin is a novel about what it means to love literature. The novel recreates the life of Dostoevsky, focussing mainly on the summer of 1867 when he and his wife Anna visited Baden-Baden. It is also an account of the narrator’s journey to Moscow, during which he visits places Dostoevsky lived and wrote about. The novel switches between these without warning, but the boundaries between these are quickly blurred, not only because the narrator, in the novel’s present, is so preoccupied with Dostoevsky, but also because both are written in the same style. Each paragraph, whether several lines, or five or six pages, is only a single sentence, full of diversions, qualifications, evasions, and digressions. Here is Dostoevsky’s reaction to Christ in the Sepulchre by Holbein the Younger, a painting that ‘was enough to make you lose your very faith’.

He stared at the picture with renewed intensity- and for a few moments it faded, even seemed to dissolve, and in its place there appeared the familiar faces: the red one with the lynx eyes, the squashed one with the protruding eyes, and then the faces of those performing the round-dance, before positioning themselves in a semi-circle at the summit of the mountain, and begining to point their fingers at him, sniggering and winking at each other, making him want to get down from the chair, but the next moment they all disappeared and he saw clearly once again the face and body of the dead Christ and heard the words about loss of faith spoken by someone else- and this idea was to become the focus of the novel, and then there began to emerge from the mist a few still indistinct objects, scenes and images: a gleaming knife- one peasant stabbing another and raising his eyes to the sky with the words: ‘God, forgive me for the sake of Jesus Christ'; then a soldier selling his pewter cross, pretending it is a silver one; words about God uttered by a simple peasant woman as she sees her baby smile for the first time; an exchange of crosses between the two main characters of the novel; then an unusually deserted Summer Garden with storm clouds thickening over the Petersburg side; a knife gleaming again somewhere in a dark corridor in one of the cheap Petersburg hotels near Liteiny Propsect and the quick glance of tiny, fiery murderous eyes, and a knife gleaming again in the darkness as it is driven in beneath the white breast of the proud and fallen woman.

The effect of these single-sentence paragraphs is to trap the reader within the flights of association that Dostoevsky is portrayed as being subject to, many of which revolve around climbing or descending a mountain, at the summit of which is a Crystal Palace (there is an irony here, in that Dostoevsky frequently mocked this image, which appeared in Chernyshevsky’s 1862 novel What is to be done?, as an idealised communal living space- in Notes from Underground it is likened to a ‘chicken coop’).

The book also raises an interesting question as to why the narrator , who is Jewish, should be so interested in a writer was made no secret of his anti-semitism. This is from A Writer’s Diary:

the whole activity of the Jews in these border regions of ours consisted of rendering the native population as much as possible inescapably dependent on them, taking advantage of the local laws. They have always managed to be on friendly terms with those upon whom the people were dependent. Point to any other tribe from among Russian aliens which could rival the Jew by his dreadful influence in this connection! You will find no such tribe. In this respect the Jew preserves all his originality as compared with other Russian aliens, and of course, the reason therefore is that status of status of his, that spirit of which specifically breathes pitilessness for everything that is not Jew, with disrespect for any people and tribe, for every human creature who is not a Jew…

However, it is more in bafflement, than anger, that the narrator considers this question; at no point does the reader get the sense that it impinges on his love for Dostoevsky’s work.

 

Escape from Spiderhead

December 14, 2010 § Leave a comment

Two excellent, and very different stories, from the New Yorker, one by George Saunders, the other by David Means. I particularly like the way the Saunders story starts in such an unintelligible manner.


“Drip on?” Abnesti said over the P.A.

“What’s in it?” I said.

“Hilarious,” he said.

“Acknowledge,” I said.

Abnesti used his remote. My MobiPak™ whirred. Soon the Interior Garden looked really nice. Everything seemed super-clear.

I said out loud, as I was supposed to, what I was feeling.

“Garden looks nice,” I said. “Super-clear.”

Abnesti said, “Jeff, how about we pep up those language centers?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Drip on?” he said.

“Acknowledge,” I said.

He added some Verbaluce™ to the drip, and soon I was feeling the same things but saying them better. The garden still looked nice. It was like the bushes were so tight-seeming and the sun made everything stand out? It was like any moment you expected some Victorians to wander in with their cups of tea. It was as if the garden had become a sort of embodiment of the domestic dreams forever intrinsic to human consciousness. It was as if I could suddenly discern, in this contemporary vignette, the ancient corollary through which Plato and some of his contemporaries might have strolled; to wit, I was sensing the eternal in the ephemeral.

Where Am I?

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