Thursday, July 30, 2009

OTC 6: "Mr. Muo's Travelling Couch" -- China

This is my sixth book for the Orbis Terrarum Challenge 2009.

Mr. Muo's Travelling Couch by Dai Sijie, originally published in Paris in French in 2003, translation by Ina Rilke published in 2005.

This novel is a picaresque satire of modern China, comic and at times farcical. The protagonist Mr. Muo returns to China after 11 years spent in Paris supposedly working on his Ph. D. on Silk Road languages but actually absorbed in the study of Freudian dream analysis. His goal in returning is to free the young woman (whose name translates roughly as "Volcano on the Old Moon") he fell in love with as an undergraduate in China; she has been imprisoned for having taken and provided photographs of the punishments meted out to Chinese dissidents to western journalists. The corrupt judge who has sentenced her regularly frees those he's sentenced in return for hefty bribes; however, rather than being willing to accept money to free her, the aging judge wishes to restore his youth and potency by deflowering a virgin (according to traditional Chinese beliefs, at least)and demands that Muo provide him with one. Muo sets out on a quest to find a willing virgin, intending to use his knowledge of Freudian dream interpretation to help him identify such a young woman.

Unfortunately, what he discovers is that, not only is Chinese government corrupt, but that Chinese society has all-too-readily adopted western sexual values and, not to put too fine a point on it, there's a serious virgin shortage in China. His search takes a number of bizarre turns, including Mr. Muo's deflowering of the first willing virgin he encounters (and himself at the same time) after the two of them are seriously frightened in a mortuary when the judge who has died suddenly returns to life. From there, it's all downhill for the totally inept Mr. Muo as he pursues his quest through a society that's not at all what the Chinese authorities want the world -- and the Chinese people -- to believe it is.

Although at moments descending into perhaps a bit more silliness than is necessary, in general the novel presents an interesting view of Chinese society by one born and raised in China during the Cultural Revolution who left China and has lived in France since 1984.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Index to "The Jackdaw's Nest"

I've created an index of all the posts so far in The Jackdaw's Nest; it's available here for anyone interested.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Over In "The Jackdaw's Nest," Something You Can Count On

Saturday, July 04, 2009

CRC 4: "Abeng" -- Michelle Cliff

This is my fourth entry for the Caribbean Reading Challenge.

Abeng by Michelle Cliff, originally published in 1984.

This novel is, on the surface, a coming-of-age novel which focuses on a twelve-year-old Jamaican girl during the late 1950s. That framework, however, simply serves to provide the narrative thread for what is actually a detailed examination of the complex multiracial history and sociology of Jamaican society, a subject that Cliff herself repeatedly assets through the novel that few Jamaicans really understand. In the character of Clare Savage, Cliff juxtaposes a series of dichotomies that she believes have fragmented Jamaican society.

Clare, for instance, is a light-skinned daughter of a light father and a dark mother; although Jamaica was praised at the time as a society with little or no color prejudices, we are shown throughout that few Jamaicans really understand. Clare's father constantly emphasizes to her the importance of her white British heritage and downplays the role of Africans in their family's past (skimming over the fact, for instance, that Clare's great-great-grandfather burned over 100 of his slaves to death rather than free them when Britain imposed emancipation on Jamaica in 1834); her mother, although not stating her views to her daughter out of respect for her husband, clearly values the black African heritage far more than he does. (Cliff makes clear that neither fully understands the complex heritage of the family). Clare herself at times encounters differing views both from and towards those of differing skin colors and is puzzled by them. When an unfortunate series of events leads Clare to accidently kill her grandmother's prize bull, her father blames the inherited influence of the black forebears on her mother's side while her mother equally blames the effects of Clare's white ancestry through her father.

Other dichotomies as they arefound specifically in Jamaican culture that Cliff explores and that puzzle Clare throughout the novel include those of male/female roles (it is partially Clare's desire to have some of the independence and respect young males receive that leads her into the events that causes the bull's death), citydwellers/countrypeople differences, young/old differences, and a whole range of religious differences (with five different religious viewpoints being explored to some extent).

At the climax of the novel, none of these issues are really resolved for Clare (she is, still only twelve), but she clearly wants to go beyond her parents and acquaintances in terms of understanding. The sequel, No Telephone To Heaven (which I have yet to read), apparently carries Clare into early adulthood and perhaps provides her with answers of some sort.

As an exploration of the cultural and historical legacies of colonialism in Jamaica (and I would suspect throughout the entire Caribbean to a great extent), Abeng is a fascinating book that I found rewarding.