Saturday, January 29, 2011

"TheJapanese Lover" by Rani Manicka

Paperback, 328 pages
Published May 13th 2010 by Hodder &Stoughton

"The Rice Mother", Rani Manicka's fabulous debut novel was one of my favorite novels for many years and still is, and so,it was with great excitement and expectation that I picked her third novel, "The Japanese Lover". The novel started nicely enough with the birth of a daughter in a poor man's home in Vathiri, North Ceylon in 1916. Because the man was extremely poor, but cunning and lazy too, when the astrologer predicted that this newly-born daughter would marry a fabulously wealthy man, he decided that "Parvathi" was his ticket out of servitude and into comfort.

When the time came for Parvathi to marry her father deceived the prospective groom by sending him a picture of a beautiful maiden, not Parvathi, and in this way managed to secure an alliance between his daughter and the wealthy Kasu (Money) Marimuthu, a 42-year old widower of Sri-Lankan/Tamil origin in Malaysia,then known as Malaya. However, when Parvathi arrived in Malaya after her arduous journey from Colomba and the bridegroom realized he was cheated,he is determined to send Parvathi back to her father's home, but that night as he lay spent and drunk, an apparition came to him instructing him never to get rid of his wife.

"If you could see what I see in your wife," the vision said quietly, "you would fall to your knees in awe. Know that she is an aodred soul who has incarnated to experience love in the most unlikely circumstances"  pg 31

  It is at this point in the novel that I realized that Rani Manicka's new novel, has, at the heart of it, characteristics and characters that would fit very nicely in the genre of magical realism - a similar theme ran through "The Rice Mother".

Anyway, although her husband decides to keep Parvathi, their marriage, while civil, is without passion or excitement. Parvathi works hard to become the sophisticated woman her husband wants her to be,but in her heart she is deeply unfulfilled...until, on page 183, when the Japanese invade Malaya (1941) the Japanese lover, which is also the title of the book, comes into her life.

Although this novel is nowhere near as enjoyable as "Rice Mother", it is immensely readable in parts.  Manicka is still a wiz at describing both, the exotic and the mundane and I absolutely devoured the pages where she describes marriages and deaths and even everyday scenes like lunch at her daughter's place or even a regular coffee morning with the mamis (Sri Lankan women in Malaya).  One of the most fascinating characters in 'The Japanese Lover' is the wise medicine woman, Maya, who while she prophesises and dispenses medicine to the people in the neighbourhood also looks after Parvathi's kitchen.   Manicka uses Maya as a vehicle for her metaphysical musings and while I found them wise and ponderable at first,  they diffuse into airy pulpiness after a while - because it overstretches the reader's concentration.

The personal tragedy of Parvathi's family plays out against a backdrop of the Japanese invasion of Malaya, the local communist insurgency, the anti-Chinese riots and then the inevitable loss of Malaya when British colonies of Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore join the Federation of Malaya to form the Federation of Malaysia. As the geography of Malaya changes so does Parvathi's life. The high society she was used to, no longer exists in which they live was at a dead end, and the lives they are leading seem to have run similarly out of road.

It seems to me that "The Japanese Lover" attempts to do too much -- combining geopolitics with the everyday life of a plantation owner's wife and telling a human story of loss and recovery whilst throwing in a lot of new ageypreachings and philosophes -- making it a hotch-potch of a read. 

Oh, and I almost forgot...towards the end of the book, Manicka allows Maya to rant against the Indian and how they suffer from an inferiority complex owing to their colour, but yet she makes a prediction that one day they will rise above it all.   When Manicka was quizzed about why she included that chapter, this is what she said in an interview:

While Parvati’s father – and her husband – never thought she was beautiful enough, other men such as the American Sam, the Japanese general and also the estate worker Kupu saw great beauty in her. In fact, dark-skinned women were looked down upon at that time.
"For me, this is a message to Indians in this country because they really do have a self-esteem problem and they deny it whenever I speak about it. It is so ingrained in them.
"With this book, I am saying it is okay if you are dark skinned."