Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Moment2Moment: Breathless in Kuala Lumpur, by Barbara Yen Yoke Wah

I recorded this book upon request for Malaysian Association for the Blind.  Its author, retired medical social
worker Barbara Yen Yoke Wah, is a friend of many of KL's blind folks through her long-standing affiliation with Society for the Blind of Malaysia.

I have not had the privilege of meeting Barbara; I can sense from her writing that I (and pretty much anyone at all) would be drawn instantly to her. She has had a rich and varied life, and she has much wisdom and experience to share.

I rather desperately wish that someone in the person of a skilled editor had worked with her on this book. (She self-published, either because local publishers rejected the manuscript or by choice, I don't know.)

As I read Moment2Moment, I grieved for the enormous potential that was lost for want of an inspired editor. I practically howled in frustration as I read fragmentary snippets ("chapters" are often less than a page long) which only hinted at deeper stories but stopped dead in their tracks.

A one-paragraph chapter titled "HIV/AIDS Pandemic is here!" is one case in point.
When the HIV/AIDS pandemic surfaced in the world around 1989, I responded to it as a volunteer in my NGO work. We had no training. Fortunately, I was given some literature to read by a great friend and former MSW colleague, Assoc Prof Ismail Baba who encouraged me to take on this issue. Subsequently, he took up a job as a social work lecturer in University Science Malaysia.  
I would love to know more about how a Malaysian medical social worker responded to the arrival of this strange and alarming virus. How did she first learn of it? When did she begin to see positive HIV test results, and how did patients cope? What were the cultural implications of HIV infection here in KL? What did the literature provided by her friend add to her understanding?  A good editor could have extracted the substance from her experience. As it stands, this paragraph tells us nothing meaningful.

Ms. Yen is unstinting in her thanks to former colleagues, and gratitude is always a fine thing, but too many of the chapters turn into extensions of the acknowledgements, including thanks to the doctors, nurses, clerical staff, canteen staff, cleaning staff and drivers of every organisation with which she has ever worked or volunteered.  Again, I'm sure these people will be delighted to see their names in print and to be remembered by a cherished colleague, but a 165-page thank you letter is not of interest to someone who is curious to learn about the author's experiences, which are undoubtedly illuminating but never make it onto the page.

This book had (has?) such promise.  Its author has the material for a good book within her, if she could only find a congenial and skilled editor with whom to collaborate.

A Place of Greater Safety, by Hilary Mantel

A Place of Greater Safety (1992) is Ms. Mantel's fifth novel and her first work of historical fiction, this one set in the French Revolution.  As regular followers of my blog know, I waxed ecstatic about Wolf Hall and resolved to work through her entire back-list before moving on to the second book in the Thomas Cromwell trilogy, Bring Up the Bodies. Once again, one book further along in my Hilary Mantel project, I say it:  This woman just can't seem to put a foot wrong.

The print versions of the book ran to about 800 pages, and I would wager that Ms. Mantel read five times as many pages in the name of research. She clearly immersed herself in the subject to a degree that few of her contemporaries can match.

As I was reading Ford Madox Ford's The Fifth Queen last month, I couldn't stop myself comparing not only his treatment of Thomas Cromwell to Hilary Mantel's but also their general approaches to the historical novel. Ford invested great detail into the setting, especially lighting. Mantel is all about character. At the end of The Fifth Queen, I felt sure I'd been in Henry VIII's court. At the end of Wolf Hall, I'd been inside Thomas Cromwell's head.  I came to Wolf Hall with a hefty knowledge of that period, so Cromwell's passions, rages, frustrations and delights made contextual sense to me. I already knew why he and Thomas More were on a collision course. It occurred to me that a reader with no background in Tudor history might be somewhat at sea. Likewise, a reader on Goodreads wondered if readers with slim background in the French Revolution would appreciate A Place of Greater Safety.

In this case, I am squarely in the "does not meet the prerequisites" club. I have only superficial knowledge of the French Revolution. Could I follow the plot?  Yes, I could, but I expect I'd have had a much richer experience of the book armed with a deeper background. Hilary Mantel draws exquisitely detailed portraits of her characters, but her coverage of the larger scene tends to be in oblique references -- the events that directly touch her characters.  So more informed in the case of Wolf Hall, less so for A Place of Greater Safety, but in the end, I admired both books equally.

And now, the excerpts.  As the novel opens, a few years before the fall of the Bastille (1789), the future revolutionaries are young students, and certain aspects of their existence are looking up:  "Life expectancy in France has now increased to almost twenty-nine years."

The main characters in this novel are the revolutionaries -- Robespierre, Danton, Desmoulins, Marat and cohorts -- Ms. Mantel spends scarce ink on the royals, but in a few paragraphs she makes plain why they are so irksome. Although Marie Antoinette's infamous "Let them eat cake" remark never finds its way into this book, her character is still patently clear.
The new King is nineteen years old; his consort, the Austrian princess Marie-Antoinette, is a year younger. The King is a large, pious, conscientious boy, phlegmatic, devoted to hunting and the pleasures of the table; he is said to be incapable, by reason of a painfully tight foreskin, of indulging the pleasures of the flesh. The Queen is a selfish little girl, strong-willed and ill-educated. She is fair, fresh-complexioned, pretty because at eighteen almost all girls are pretty; but her large-chinned Hapsburg hauteur is already beginning to battle with the advantages conferred by silk, diamonds and ignorance.
True, the Queen would like to break away from all this, institute an age of liberty: of the finest gauzes, the softest muslins, of simple ribbons and floating shifts. It is astonishing to find that simplicity, when conceived in exquisite taste, costs just as much as the velvets and satins ever did. The Queen adores, she says, all that is natural -- in dress, in etiquette. What she adores even more are diamonds...  "I am terrified of being bored," she says.
The Bastille fell on 14 July 1789.
On July 13 there were hailstorms; to say this is to give no idea of how the hail fell -- as if God's contempt had frozen.
Camille Desmoulins, a rather fragile, artistic type, becomes an unlikely leader of the revolution, penning incendiary leaflets that belie his diminutive physical presence. He is having an affair with Annette, a middle-aged married woman, whose teen-aged daughter, Lucile, has fallen head over heels in lust with Camille. Although this passage suggests it's a fleeting adolescent flame, the two do eventually marry and form a fascinating partnership, severed only, alas, by the guillotine, nearly a decade later.
For quite thirty seconds, Lucile had forgotten to look into the mirror. For the first time, she felt she had taken a hold upon her life; she had become embodied, she wasn't a spectator anymore. But how long would the feeling last? His actual physical presence, so much longed for, she now found too much to bear. She wished he would go away, so she could imagine him again, but she was unsure how to request this without appearing demented. Camille framed in his mind the first and last sentences of a political pamphlet, but his eyes did not shift from her face; as he was extremely shortsighted, his gaze gave the impression of an intensity of concentration that made her weak at the knees.
Again, in a tantalisingly short passage, Ms. Mantel captures both the common wonder at seeing the King (as he is removed in chains from Versailles), and the extent to which he is oblivious to his situation.
The delirious crowd pushes around him, jostling him and trying to touch him to see if he feels the same as other people. "Long live the King," they shout. (The Queen had not expected to see him again.) "Let them be," he says to the soldiers. "I believe they are truly fond of me."
Camille Desmoulins, via his newspapers, circulars and speeches, becomes the voice of the revolution. His childhood friends, Danton and Robespierre, are strong and polished by comparison, but Camille's passion flows through his pen, and Hilary Mantel's sympathy with him flows through hers.
When it was time to write, and he took his pen in his hand, he never thought of consequences; he thought of style. I wonder why I ever bothered with sex, he thought; there's nothing in this breathing world so gratifying as an artfully placed semicolon. Once paper and ink were to hand, it was useless to appeal to his better nature, to tell him he was wrecking reputations and ruining people's lives. A kind of sweet venom flowed through his veins, smoother than the finest cognac, quicker to make the head spin. And, just as some people crave opium, he craves the opportunity to exercise his fine art of mockery, vituperation and abuse; laudanum might quieten the senses, but a good editorial puts a catch in the throat and a skip in the heartbeat. Writing's like running downhill; can't stop if you want to.
The 16 year-old Lucile, obsessed with Camille (her mother's lover), is all in favour of overturning the status quo.  Her father, a civil servant, realises to his horror that his children have a very keen vision of defying authority, and on a national scale. Teen-agers, it seems, have always known more than their elders.
He looked at his daughters to discern, if he could, the children they had once been. He felt impelled to plead with them. "But if you had not the King, or Lafayette, or Mirabeau, or the ministers -- and I have heard you speak against them all -- who would there be left to rule the nation?" They exchanged glances. "Our friends," the sisters said.
Meanwhile, cynical Camille speaks with his more idealistic friend, Robespierre, about the purpose of the Revolution. It's an eerie foreshadowing of the day when the two key figures will no longer agree (and likely never agreed) upon the Revolution's goal or justification -- only that it was necessary.
"I don't believe God listens to those sorts of prayers. They're selfserving, aren't they?"
"God accepts all kinds of prayers." They looked at each other, vaguely alarmed."We are here under Providence," Robespierre said. "I am sure of that."
"I couldn't say that I'm sure of it. Though I do find the idea consoling."
"But if we are not under Providence, what is everything for?" Robespierre now looked wildly alarmed. "What is the Revolution for?"
For Georges-Jacques [Danton] to make money out of, Camille thought. Robespierre answered himself. "Surely it is to bring us to the kind of society that God intends? To bring us to justice and equality, to full humanity?"
Oh good heavens, Camille thought. This Max, he believes every word he says. "I wouldn't presume to know what kind of society God intends. It sounds to me as if you've gone to a tailor to order your God. Or had him knitted, or something."

Camille Desmoulins, whose incendiary writing stoked the revolutionary flame, appears to have been emotionally fragile and more than a little melodramatic. It's often the bear-like lawyer, Georges-Jacques Danton who holds him together when things are tense, or alternately his childhood friend, Robespierre. Even Camille's wife, Lucile, who matured quickly into the sort of unflappable, strong woman he needs, grows immune to his histrionics. One of their friends and fellow revolutionaries, an actor named Fabre, seeks out Georges-Jacques in a moment of crisis.  Failing to find Danton at home, Fabre goes to Camille's house.

Lucile was sitting with her feet up, reading a novel and eating an orange. "Here you are," she said, offering him a segment.
"Where is he?" Fabre demanded.
"Georges-Jacques? Gone to Arcis."
"But why, why, why? Mother of God! Where's Camille?"
"He's lying on our bed. I think he's crying."
Fabre burst into the bedroom, stuffing the segment of orange into his mouth. He hurled himself at the bed and Camille. "No, please, don't, please," Camille said. He covered his head with his hands. "Don't beat me up, Fabre, I feel ill. I can't take this."
"What's Danton up to? Come on, you must know."
"He's gone to see his mother. His mother. I didn't know till this morning. No message, no letter, nothing. I can't cope."
"The fat bastard," Fabre said. "I bet he's planning to stay away."
"I'm going to kill myself," Camille said.
Fabre rolled from the bed. He propelled himself back into the drawing room. "I can't get any sense out of him. He says he's going to kill himself. What shall we do?" Lucile inserted her bookmark and laid her novel aside. It was clear that she would get no further with it.
"Georges told me he would be back, and I have no reason to disbelieve him -- but perhaps you'd like to sit down here and write him a letter? Tell him you can't manage the thing without him, which is true. Tell him Robespierre says he can't get along without him. And when you're done, you might go and find Robespierre and ask him to call. He is such a steadying influence when Camille is killing himself."
One of the classic images of the French Revolution in my own mind is that of Marat, bleeding to death in his bathtub after being stabbed by Charlotte Corday.  Evidently the artist who rendered the famous painting of this scene engaged in a bit of 18th-century Photoshopping, portraying the dying revolutionary as a powerful and handsome hero.  In fact, he was reportedly repulsive, spending much of his time in the bath to find relief from a chronic skin condition.  Although Marat makes few appearances in this novel, Mantel's descriptions make me smile -- they evoke for me the grubby little Peanuts character, Pigpen.  His fellow revolutionaries don't always treat him charitably, but then, revolution is a nasty business.
Marat came. He looked dirtier than ever. As if in sympathy with his work, his skin had taken on the color of poor-quality newsprint. "There are other places we could have met,"Danton said. "I didn't ask you here. I don't want my wife and child given nightmares."
"You will be pleased to invite me, afterwards. Besides, who knows -- I might clean myself up under the republic."
And so this revolution goes as so many others do -- out of control.  People are denounced for not being revolutionary enough, or for being too extreme. For being indifferent, or materialistic, or having the wrong ideals.  They are charged with having the wrong friends, and then after their execution, their former friends are charged with having associated with them.  A Place of Greater Safety?  There isn't one.
The executioner. His overheads have gone up shockingly since the Terror began. He has seven men to pay out of his own wages, and soon he will be hiring up to a dozen carts a day. Before, he managed with two assistants and one cart. The kind of money he can offer doesn't attract people to the work. He has to pay for his own cord for binding the clients, and for the big wicker baskets to take the corpses away afterwards. At first they'd thought the guillotine would be a sweet, clean business, but when you have twenty, perhaps thirty heads to take off in a day, there are problems of scale. Do the powers-that-be understand just how much blood comes out of even one decapitated person? The blood ruins everything, rots things away, especially his clothes. People down there don't realize, but he sometimes gets splashed right up to his knees. It's heavy work. If you get someone who's tried to do away with himself beforehand, he can be in a mess, maybe collapsed through poison or loss of blood, and you can strain your back trying to drag him into position under the blade. Recently Citizen Fouquier insisted they guillotine a corpse, which everybody thought was a lot of unnecessary work. Again, take someone who's crippled or deformed; they can't be tied to the plank without a lot of sweat and heaving, and then the crowds (who can't see much anyway) get bored and start hissing and catcalling. Meanwhile a queue builds up, and the people at the end of the queue get awkward and start screaming or passing out. If all the clients were young, male, stoical and fit, he'd have fewer problems, but it's surprising how few of them fall into all those categories. The citizens who live nearby complain that he doesn't put down enough sawdust to soak up the blood, and the smell becomes offensive. The machine itself is quiet, efficient, reliable; but of course he has to pay the man who sharpens the knife.
In a moment of clarity and despair, Robespierre reflects upon their lofty goals and what would likely be the final result.
What is our aim? The use of the constitution for the benefit of the people. Who are likely to oppose us? The rich and corrupt. What methods will they employ? Slander and hypocrisy. What factors will encourage the use of such means? The ignorance of ordinary people. When will the people be educated? When they have enough to eat, and when the rich and the government stop bribing treacherous tongues and pens to deceive them; when their interests are identified with those of the people. When will this be? Never.
As the Revolution begins to feed on its own, Robespierre is tasked with eliminating Danton, Fabre and Camille. This will be no easy job, as Danton is trained as a lawyer and renowned for his rousing oratory. Following one of Danton's speeches at their trial, the prosecutor, Fouquier, tells Robespierre that it's going badly -- if Danton continues, he may win over even the carefully selected jury (composed of those who are most certain to send the defendants to the guillotine).  Robespierre assures the prosecutor that the rule of law will be tailored as necessary to achieve the correct outcome. They will shut Danton up one way or another. One wonders, when things reach this stage, why even bother with the pretence of a trial? It does nothing to whitewash what is plainly murder.
"If things go no better tomorrow," Robespierre said, "send a note to us. We'll see what we can do to help."
"Well -- what could you do?"
"After Brissot's trial we brought in the three-day rule. But it was too late to be helpful. There is no reason why you shouldn't have new procedures when you need them, Fouquier. We don't want this to take much longer."
In her epilogue, Ms. Mantel closes with a note on her approach to historical fiction. A Place of Greater Safety achieves her goals brilliantly -- as with real life, the reader's opinions and sympathies are likely to shift throughout the book. My respect for her continues unabated.
I am not trying to persuade my reader to view events in a particular way, or to draw any particular lessons from them. I have tried to write a novel that gives the reader scope to change opinions, change sympathies: a book that one can think and live inside. The reader may ask how to tell fact from fiction. A rough guide: anything that seems particularly unlikely is probably true.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Princess Play, by Barbara Ismail

Dancers (Study 1)
by Mohammad Yazid Kamal Baharin
Princess Play is the literal (too literal for my taste) translation of the Malay term, main puteri.  Not really a play at all in the western sense, the main puteri is a traditional healing ceremony practised in the northern Malaysian state of Kelantan.

Barbara Ismail is an American anthropologist who researched her PhD thesis in Kelantan in the 1970s.  Princess Play is the second novel in her Kain Songket Mysteries series, featuring the indefatigable Mak Cik Maryam, who, when not selling woven songket fabric in the Kota Bharu market, is solving murder cases. 

I recorded this book for the Malaysian Association for the Blind. The Inspector Singh mysteries by Shamini Flint have been very popular with the members, but it's lovely to find a sleuth from our own side of the causeway (Inspector Singh is Singaporean).  I think both Mak Cik Maryam and life in her 1970s Kelantanese kampong will resonate beautifully with these readers.

I found a reasonable description of the main puteri on (of all places!) the web site of the Library of the National Institute of Health in the US :
Main puteri: an indigenous Kelantanese form of psychotherapy
The permainan puteri (usually abbreviated to main puteri) is an indigenous Kelantanese healing ceremony in which the bomoh (traditional medicine-man), the sick individual and other participants become spirit-medium through whom puteri (spirits) are able to enact a permainan ('play'). It has been successfully used as a psychotherapy for depression. The bomoh assisted by his minduk (master of spirits) and a troupe of musicians, is able to provide a conceptual framework around which the sick individual can organize his vague, mysterious and chaotic symptoms so that they become comprehensible and orderly. At the same time the bomoh is able to draw the sick individual out of his state of morbid self-absorption and heighten his feelings of self-worth. The involvement of his family, relatives and friends tends to enhance group solidarity and reintegrate the sick individual into his immediate social group.

The story opens with the preparations for the main puteri to be held for Mak Cik Jamillah, who just hasn't been herself recently.  The ceremony is a stunning success: Deep in trance, Jamillah rises and dances with a supernatural passion, collapsing exhausted at the end.  Everyone in the kampong rejoices, knowing that her malaise is cured, and they all make their way home to bed.  Jamillah, however, fails to wake up in the morning.

The young, new Kota Bharu police chief, Osman, feels that his arrival at the victim's house would be so much more impressive if it involved high speed, screaming sirens and the screeching of tires as the cruiser skidded to a halt, but the rutted dirt road leading  into Kampong Penambang does not permit such theatrics. He himself has failed to impress the locals, as he is from Ipoh, Perak and cannot even understand the Kelantanese dialect.  So once again, he turns to the trusty and clever Mak Cik Maryam to help him sort matters out.

With her cousin Rubiah at her side, Maryam begins to pay not-entirely-social calls to various folks who may be able to shed light on Jamillah's death. In a delightful bit of detail, the two middle-aged sleuths discuss how much and what quality jewelry they should wear when visiting a matron in the neighbouring kampong so as to create the correct impression. Ms. Ismail also pays very keen attention -- as any Kelantanese would do -- to the types and quantities of cakes served whenever guests drop in for coffee.

Although she doesn't skimp on light-hearted whimsy and local colour, Ms. Ismail doesn't go overboard with it, either.  Princess Play is at bottom a book about murder, and even a sleepy, small village in Kelantan contains its share of passion, madness, jealousy and violence simmering away beneath the niceties and songkok. It's not long before Maryam and Rubiah are looking at a dismayingly long list of murder suspects, none less plausible than the others. The bomoh, Pak Nik Lah, is a wise man, and he knows his limits. There are some ill-natured spirits that a main puteri can address, but sometimes greed, vengeance and rage drive people to murder, and that, he's happy to concede, is a matter for the police.  And, of course, Mak Cik Maryam.