Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Beauty of Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb

Category: Fiction
Format: Hardcover, 304 pages
Publisher: Doubleday Canada
ISBN: 978-0-385-66322-9 (0-385-66322-6)

Pub Date: August 17, 2010
Price: $32.95

The Beauty of Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb takes its fictional name from an actual group of idealistic communist writers and artists in Hanoi. In the early 1950s, this group wrote and spoke out against the excesses of Ho Chi Minh's policies, in particular, the Land Reform Act in which hundreds of thousands of people (peasants mostly) accused of being landlords were executed or tortured and starved in prison.

Because they were vocal in their denouncement of this "land reform," and also because they refused to act as a mouth-speaker for government propaganda, the artists and writers of the Beauty of Humanity Movement suffered a fate similar to the unfortunate peasantry. Sent to so-called re-education camps, they were tortured, indoctrinated, killed or maimed.  Punishments meted out  were cruel and usually specific to the occupation of the prisoner. Artists lost their hands, poets their tongues.

 The pivotal character in this novel is Old Man Hung, who formerly owned a restaurant famous for its pho and frequented by some of the country’s leading poets and visual artists (this while the French were in power). After angering the newly-formed Communist regime (the French were defeated in the early '50's), who withheld a restaurant license from him he was forced to operate outside of the law, selling pho illegally from a cart he pushed around the city.  He'd have to find a new spot almost every other day and yet the crowds would throng his stall, bringing their own bowls for a taste of his magnificent Pho. Among his customers were Binh and Tu, the son and grandson of his best friend, Dao, a poet and member of the artist group the Beauty of Humanity Movement who was killed by the Communists on his way to a re-education camp.

Pho  may just be a humble soup made from beef broth, but it is the blood that flows in the veins of the streets of Vietnam.  Infact, Old Man Hung  says that the history of Vietnam can be found in a bowl of  Pho bac (the pho that Hanoi is famous for).  The rice noodles it contains is symbolic of the thousand years of Chinese occupations and the beef is symbolic of the French occupation that came later (the taste for beef was introduced by the French who turned  the people's cows away from ploughs and into 'bifteck" and pot-au-feu.) The clever Vietnamese took the best the occupiers had to offer and made something uniquely Vietnamese from it.

One day a Vietnamese-American curator, Maggie, visits Old Man Hung at one of his mobile stands.  Maggie was five years old when she was rescued by the Americans at Saigon airport (after the fall of Saigon) . She wants to  learn more about her artist father, who also disappeared during the war. She asks Hung if he can help her (after all when Hung had his Pho shop in the '50's it was the meeting place for a lot of radical artists and writers) .  Hung's memories are the perfect vehicle to take the reader through Vietnam's past - from the intellectual age of the 1930's when Hung was sent to the city to work in his uncle's pho shop (he was an unwanted child...the ninth unwanted his parents didn't even give him a name, calling him simply, Nine),  through to French colonization, Japanese occupation and, of course, the Vietnam War.

While Hung provides a look back into Vietnam’s past, a 22-year-old tour guide named Tu offers readers a glimpse into the country’s current era of economic freedom and its entrepreneurial youth, so many of which were born after the war, so it's not a direct memory in their lifetimes. Tu' specializes in offering guilt-ridden American veterans "war tours" through his city, but he soon starts to realize their version of his country's history is deeply flawed.  There is an encounter with Tu' and an American Vet at a Buddhist temple which is especially poignant. 

Camilla Gibb's novels fall in the sub-genre of literary fiction that I like to call Anthropological fiction (her previous novel was "Sweetness in the Belly" which was set in Ethiopia.).  These are novels set in different countries  and whose readers relish learning about foreign cultures (their history, diet, traditions, rituals and so on) in a fictional setting.   Reading novels like these makes one realize how different and yet how similar we all are.  No matter where the characters come from or are based, there are certain human traits that are universally recognizable and this is why these books resonate with us so much.

Gibb's writing is very clear, clean and precise. In this novel she explores both,present-day Vietnam and the forces that shaped it. Many novels on Vietnam focus mostly on the war and the aftermath but in doing so one neglects the vibrant, bustling Vietnam of today. I think Gibb's novel gives the reader a very balanced and overall view of the country and I appreciate that.

What was interesting to me was Maggie's reception in Vietnam.  The Vietnamese are very hostile to foreign-returned Vietnamese "Viet-Kieu", and she was greeted suspiciously wherever she went.  Her morals and intentions were questioned and I am sure her loyalty was too. I have never found this in India...I come and go as I please and yet my countrymen will always treat me like one of them.  However, I have a Korean friend who tells me such a thing is very common in Korea too.

To sum up, the book plunges the reader into the borderlands between opposing forces: youth and age, exclusion and privilege, war and peace. Hanoi's 1000th anniversary is to be celebrated from October 1 to 10, this book would be a perfect celebration of it.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Tishani Doshi's "The Pleasure Seekers"

September 2010
320 pp
Bloomsbury USA
From the Publishers:

Meet the Patel-Joneses—Babo, Sian, Mayuri, and Bean—in their little house with orange and black gates next door to the Punjab Women's Association in Madras. Babo grew up here, but he and Sian, his cream-skinned Welsh love, met in London. Babo's parents disapproved. And then they disapproved unless the couple moved back to Madras. So here they are. And as the twentieth century creaks and croaks its way along, Babo, Sian, and the children navigate their way through the uncharted territory of a "hybrid" family: the hustle and bustle of Babo's relatives; the faraway phone-line crackle of Sian's; the eternal wisdom and soft bosom of Great-Grandmother Ba; the perils of first love, lost innocence, and old age; and the big question: What do you do with the space your loved ones leave behind?

I have been waiting to read  Tishani Doshi's "The Pleasure Seekers" ever since it first came out and now that I've read it, I would love to be able to wax poetic about  it,  I'd love to be able to tell you to rush out and pick up a copy, but sadly, the book did not live up to the publishers' message, nor did it live up to Salman Rushdie's gushing blurb on the front cover.   I wouldn't call it a bad book, no, far from it, it's just a pleasant read...nothing to get excited over and definitely nothing to write home about.

You may ask me why I was so excited to read this book...well, it's a book set in Chennai (one of the places I have lived in) and focuses on a large Gujarati family.  Those of you who know me well know that even though I am a Punjabi by birth, culturally I am a Gujarati because I grew up amongst them.  Also, Babo, one of the sons in this large family marries a Welsh girl (Sian) who comes to live with him and his family in Chennai and I was very curious to see how this interfaith, interracial marriage plays out in the book (incidentally, Doshi has a Gujarati father and a Welsh mother and has called her book "a love letter to my parents")

This is a novel about family and about home, or more precisely it asks the question, where is home? It is also about identity, love across the seas,displacement, family bonds and so on.  I guess these are all themes that have been used often in Indian immigrant stories and it could be one of the many reasons the story didn't quite worm its way into my heart.

The prose is flawless, but a little too "cutsie" for me in parts.  Intercourse is referred to as "shabang shibing" and sex is described as as a boy putting his “Whatsit” into a girl’s “Ms Sunshine”!  Fortunately for the reader however, Doshi is a poet, so every now and again we are treated to bursts of poetry in the writing, but despite those sunshiney bursts of poetry I found the narrative structure too ordinary and the characters, pleasant, but  cozy caricatures at best.  Also, in the first half, you are given a tour of almost everyone in Prem Kumar's family (he's the patriarch), and then in the second half, Doshi seems to dismiss most of them as she settles down to only Babo's story along with his Welsh wife,his younger daughter Bean and Ba - Babo's  esoteric grandmother who “smells” people approaching her house “from over the hills” - . Ofcourse, that doesn't take away from the novel being a good read, just that some characters seemed to show promise and then they were dismissed.

And then, there's this unpardonable sin of using oh too many cliches - especially the caricatures of Indians abroad and a reliance on stock cultural jokes and scenarios.  But aside from these quibbles I've listed "The Pleasure Seekers" is a pleasant enough read - not memorable by any means - but a nice diversion.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

The Ghost Brush by Katherine Govier

On Sale: 05/05/2010 Publisher: Harper Collins

Today I place in your cupped hands Katherine Govier's sumptuous novel, "The Ghost Brush", set in 19th century Japan or Edo as it was called then. Edo was under the rule of the Shogun, or more specifically the Tokugawa Shogunate. Society in the Tokugawa period, unlike the shogunates before it, was based on a strict class hierarchy. The daimyo, or lords, were at the top, followed by the samurai (warriors), with the farmers, artisans, and traders ranking below. Outside the four classes were the eta and hinin.  Eta were butchers, tanners and undertakers. Hinin served as town guards, street cleaners and executioners. Other outsiders included the beggars, entertainers, and prostitutes.

Although prostitutes and entertainers were considered "Outsiders", an art emerged during this period that focused on the lives, fashions and aesthetics of courtesans and entertainers.  So, ironically, although prostitutes and their craft was looked down upon, people were interested in what they wore, how they spent their leisure time, their mannerisms etc. hence all the leading artists of the day could be found in Yoshiwara (the Pleasure District) painting away like their lives depended on what the courtesans did and indeed such was the case.

One of those artists was Hokusai ( best known for his woodblock print series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji which includes the internationally recognized print, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, created during the 1820s.  Ofcourse, these works came later and when the book opens Hokusai is a simple painter and a frequent visitor to the red light district where he takes his 10-year old daughter Oei for company and also to help him mix the paints he needs.

Growing up in adult company Oei grows to be a precocious (but not unlikeable little girl).  She soon strikes up a friendship with one of the courtesans (Shino).  Shino is a Lady that has been sent to the brothel as a punishment for insulting her husband.  It is through Oei's evenings with Shino that the reader is treated to what brothel life was like in Edo and the traditions, rituals and ceremonies that were a part of a courtesan's life.  Reading Katherine Govier's colourful and rich descriptions of life in Yoshiwara took me back to movies by the old Japanese master Kenji Mizoguchi, especially his movies "Osaka Elegy", "Sisters of the Gion" and "The Life of Oharu".

Anyway, so under her father's tutelage, Oei started to work on drawings of women. She illustrated manuals for female behavior-- etiquette, housekeeping, fashion, even childbirth. But even though she did all of that, she herself was a rebel and refused to conform to "appropriate" female behavior.  Although she was plain with a rather prominent jaw (not considered beautiful at all), she managed to have a lot of lovers as many men were attracted to her strong spirit. She drank and was addicted to her tobacco pipe, but no matter her flaws, she always remained Hokusai's dutiful daughter, helping her father with his commissions but never taking credit for any of them.  This is where the title originates from, Oei was Hokusai's "Ghost Brush".

Oei married one of Hokusai's students, and even though her husband doted on her, he just wasn't bright or intelligent enough for Oei.  One day she happened to laugh at one of his paintings and he "showed her the broom" which meant, he asked her to leave his home.  Oei wanted her freedom back but the only way she could get a divorce was to seek refuge at Tokeiji Temple aka the "Run-in Temple". It was said that when you saw a woman running in the area, you knew she was on her way to Tokeiji, likely being chased by her husband. When Oei returned home from the temple, a newly-divorced woman, she took over her father's studio because an attack of palsy rendered him unable to communicate via speech.

The only foreigners in Edo at that time were the Dutch.  Xenophobic as ever, Japan took a lot of pains to keep foreigners away.  Only a few Dutchmen (from the Dutch-East India Company) were allowed to trade and they were confined to Dejima in Nagasaki Harbor - a de facto prison for the dozen or so men permitted to live and work there. (It is rumoured that the Dutch were the only foreigners chosen to work in Japan because they were the only ones that agreed to stamp on their Holy Book).   Coincidentally, the hero of David Mitchell's new book "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" features one such Dutchman from Dejima. The book has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2010, it will be interesting to see if it wins.

With Hokusai's speech affected by palsy it was left to Oei to meet with his patrons.  So when a Dutchman showed interest in buying some of Hokusai's art, Oei went to meet him and Govier cleverly uses their conversations as a narrative tool to share with the reader how the east and the west perceived each other at that time.

As the story moves on the reader will find herself or himself rooting for Katsushika Oei to come in to her own...with talent like hers it is unfortunate to have her hiding in her father's shadow and yet that time in Japan demanded that women be completely servile to the men.  Perhaps the most puzzling thing is that there was no coercion, women seemed to be willing partners in their own invisibility.

When a novelist will pluck a hero out of obscurity and tell the world about him or her, I feel as readers we owe them a debt of gratitude, so, Katherine Govier, here's a very big thank you to you! Your novel on the immensely talented Katsushika Oei is a work as exquisitely rendered as it is irresistibly readable.

If historical fiction, art or 19th century Japan is your thing, please pick up a copy of "The Ghost Brush"... it is a captivating and beautifully-rendered saga of Japan, also, it is so rich with period effect that it makes a great candidate for a screen drama. While it may be historical fiction, let us also not forget that at the heart of it all is the story of incomparable love between a father and daughter.

Go here for a companion website to the novel, historical background, source material, and images from the work of Japanese printmaker Hokusai and his daughter Oei.