Sunday, November 30, 2008


On Whose Watch?
Has technology and Big Brother culture created voyeuristic tendencies in the 21st-century society? TOM SYKES suggests that perhaps we’ve had them in us all along

SOMETIMES it takes a long trip away from a place to gain a better vantage point of it. While travelling (deliberately without a backpack to avoid being a cliché) in Malacca, I met a Welsh guy who, upon having been fined for speeding back in Britain, felt a powerful urge to smash up the speed camera that had captured his misdemeanour. I found this horribly ironic―the very equipment that is supposed to stop crime ends up inspiring it.

On a similar tip we have the phenomenon of ‘happy slapping’ where (mostly) young people record themselves fighting each other by mobile phone camera. Schools have been particularly affected, with one teaching union now going as far as to call for the reclassification of mobile phones as ‘offensive weapons.’ In March 2007, a 42-year-old man in the northwest of England committed suicide via webcam while using an Internet chat room. Regrettably, he was egged on by the other guests who at first thought he was play-acting. Consider this in relation to the fact that 40 per cent of the U.K. male population viewed Internet pornography in 2006 and it’s hard not to conclude that these days, human beings’ most intimate urges—to fight, to die, to sate sexual desire—are mediated by technology, especially information technology. It is as if no experience is real or meaningful unless there is a camera running or a PC purring somewhere close by.

While also in Malaysia, I watched Disturbia, a mediocre Hollywood thriller that borrows heavily from the Hitchcock classic Rear Window. One of the few interesting aspects of the film is the ending (skip this paragraph if you don’t like plot spoilers) when the protagonist Kale’s best friend covertly films Kale making out with the girl next door. Far from balking at this invasion of privacy, Kale raises a half-hearted middle finger and carries on regardless while we the audience watch through his friend’s lens. Perhaps we will all get so used to being spied on that, like Kale, we gain some thrill from it.

J.G. Ballard, in my view the greatest British author since World War II, was voicing similar sentiments 40 years ago. His provocative novel, Crash (1973), was, among other things, an allegory for the dark ways in which technology has become wedded to human essence. The clinical neutrality of his authorial voice doesn’t reach any moral conclusions about the uneasy trialectic between sex, death and cars—he creates a vision and lets us decide for ourselves what we make of it. In High Rise (1975), Ballard explored how that iconic building of post-war Britain, the tower block, might, for all its pretence of convenience and modernity, reduce its residents to savagery, like animals that have been caged up too long. More recently, Ballard said in an interview, “There’s a strange, cultural shift that I’ve been watching over the last 45 years since I came to England: the airport culture, the motorway culture, CCTV cameras, all the rest of it. People like alienation, curiously enough. They like disposability. Friendships that last half an hour. Things have changed, and one can’t help but notice.”

There are four million CCTV cameras in Britain, one for every 14 people. But they didn’t stop a major terrorist assault or a 50 per cent rise in gun crime in London, or an epidemic of alcohol-fuelled violence in our city centres partly because when the footage is reviewed by the police, faces can seldom be identified. Like Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon prison design, CCTV is supposed to scare the public into regulating themselves. It is no more than a talisman, and a talisman that doesn’t seem to have worked. In many institutions from universities to factories there are decoy CCTV cameras that aren’t even plugged in. There is something faintly ludicrous about a camera that lacks the capacity to record anything.

CCTV infuriates the public, like the Welshman mentioned above. And the new generation of surveillance technology has a deeply sinister tinge to it that not even the mind of Philip K. Dick could have imagined. The U.S. and U.K. governments are developing ‘Gait DNA’ which means that soon the authorities will be able to track you in a crowd of thousands just from the way you happen to walk. Using a small console that emits radio waves, experts can also detect the breathing and heart rates of people behind a thick concrete wall.

So what’s the next step for the Surveillance Society? Compulsory identity cards were very much on the agenda until November 2007 when the personal details of 25 million recipients of child welfare payments were lost by the civil service. Now the vast majority of the public don’t trust the government with any such sensitive information. Forty-nine per cent of them even hold Gordon Brown personally responsible. There is already cross-party opposition to ID cards prompted by fears that individual freedom will be eroded. The argument for centres on terrorism, but there have been countless terrorists in Europe and elsewhere who have done their terrible deeds while in possession of valid ID cards. Better to follow the advice of our erstwhile Prime Minister Tony Blair to get ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime,’ but especially the causes.

Only time will tell if people will grow to accept all this, the cameras, the techno-bureaucracy, the constant expansion of the alternative reality of the Internet, or whether there will be some Luddite backlash and the silicon will be tossed onto the bonfire. Perhaps it is too late, far too late to call for some kind of balance between these extremes. We will see.

TOM SYKES was born in Portsmouth, England, in 1979, and graduated from the University of East Anglia in 2001. He is the co-editor of the travel book, No Such Thing as a Free Ride?, which was serialised in the London Times and named Observer Travel Book of the Week. He has published short fiction and articles in the U.K., U.S., Canada and Southeast Asia. His novel, The Blank Space, is published by Pendragon Press later in the year.

Reproduced from the April-June 2008 issue of Quill magazine

Saturday, November 29, 2008


WHAT do you think of these book covers? They belong to the covers of Australian novelist Bryce COURTENAY’s latest novels: The Persimmon Tree (2007) and Fishing for Stars (2008), both published by Penguin Australia.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Janet TAY reviews J.M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading

J.M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading:
Literature in the Event
By Derek Attridge
(The University of Chicago Press, 2005, 240pp)


WHEN J.M. COETZEE was asked whether Lucy, a character from his Booker Prize-winning novel Disgrace (1999) was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ bearing the sins of the Lord, he replied icily (according to an article in of March 3, 2004), “I have never thought of that. It seems just a little far-fetched to me,” and ceased the discussion there. The same article also stated that “Coetzee seems ill at ease with people, as if fearing he will be tricked into falseness by a casual remark or exchange” and is “reluctant to tolerate the overwrought meanings others might seek to find in his work.” With the hurdle of overcoming the apparent taciturnity of the author himself, undertaking an academic study of Coetzee’s novels may be seem to be an unaided and daunting prospect. At the same time, however, it appears that academics are then free to chart their own course in the exploration of Coetzee’s work. This is not to say that the lack of input by Coetzee necessarily invites the academic to wildly read something which is clearly not present in his work, and undoubtedly such a reading displaces the literal reading of the text and, according to Derek Attridge, would do damage to the work as a work of literature. On the contrary, Coetzee’s thriftiness in response to questions on his novels (which parallels his usage of words in his work) allows academics (and readers) to trek their own journeys towards the interpretation of his work, to find the answers within the literature and not from the author. Coetzee himself explains why he does not feel that it is vital for him to answer questions on his novels, in interviews from Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews (1992): “Whatever the truth, I feel that questions of influence upon my novel-writing are not for me to answer: they entail a variety of self-awareness that does me no good as a storyteller, as a site where fantasy should not be hampered by unnecessary introversions and doubts” and “... what I am doing when I am writing a novel either isn’t me or is me in a deeper sense than the words I am now speaking are me.”

It is then most apt that Attridge, the author of The Singularity of Literature (2004)—the book that discusses the existence of literary work as a peculiar nexus within the culture that is perceived as resisting or exceeding all pre-existing general determinations—would also have written J.M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading, an astute and comprehensive collection of essays on Coetzee’s novels from Dusklands (1974) to Elizabeth Costello (2003). Divided into seven chapters and an epilogue, each novel is studied by Attridge in chronological order with a specific theme but also connects with the overall question of the ethics and responsibilities of reading a text and nuances of the idea of reading the singularity of the text. A Professor of English and Head of Department at the University of York, Attridge’s contribution to the research of Coetzee’s works is a welcome addition to the study of one of the most widely taught yet equally elusive writers in the 20th century.

Attridge’s first chapter deals with the novels, Dusklands and In the Heart of the Country (1977). Entitled “Modernist Form and the Ethics of Otherness,” Attridge discusses the modernist technique used by Coetzee to not only illustrate brutality and exploitation in the themes of his novel but also the way in which “otherness is engaged, staged, distanced, embraced” and “the simultaneous exhibiting and doubting of the novelist’s authority.” The title of this chapter may well include the novels in his subsequent chapter on Life & Times of Michael K (1983) and Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), both of which have protagonists that lack an affinity with the society in which they live. The theme of otherness is inseparable in Coetzee’s novels, perhaps, as is shown in Boyhood, due to his own feelings of being socially marginalised while growing up in South Africa. Attridge rightly perceives the thematic focus of Coetzee’s novels as “the solitary individual in a hostile human and physical environment.” Attridge also discusses the issue of the Other and Otherness in the chapters on Foe (1986) and Age of Iron (1990), crediting Coetzee for work which may not only self-question its status in the canon, but also give the Other its rightful place in literature—to provide an awareness of the existence of marginalisation and silences caused by political and social displacements.

Perhaps one of the most interesting chapters in Attridge’s book is the second, entitled “Against Allegory.” One might surmise that Coetzee would approve of this essay indeed. With the exception of Age of Iron and Disgrace, the enigmatic characters, lack of authorial presence and bare plots “all encourage the reader to look for meanings beyond the literal.” Although the interpretation of Coetzee’s novels can as a result point towards moral and political implications in South Africa, it is equally important for readers to have valued the experience for itself, not just because they reveal some truths about the world in general or South Africa. Attridge uses the example of Michael K’s harelip, which could just as easily be construed as an “allegorical indicator of the handicaps suffered by certain sectors of the South African population” or perhaps, just simply, part of what makes him who he is. Coetzee’s tendency to put his characters “in situations of peculiar intensity, stripped of the often distracting detail of historical reference” is not to be condemned, but accepted as a unique feature of the story or novel. The focus on primary engagement with the literary work shifts, Attridge says, as our critical tools become more sophisticated.

Confessional novels are also explored by Attridge in the postscript of his analysis of The Master of Petersburg (1994). Like Dostoevsky, Coetzee is fascinated with the idea of confession, hence much of his fiction present characters feel the need to confess their “thoughts, feelings and desires, however private and shameful.” Coetzee’s “confessions” are never simple or direct, what Derrida calls a “circumfession, an avoidance as well as an admission, a staging of confession as well as a confessing.” The idea of confession in Coetzee’s novels is discussed at length in the dedication of the sixth chapter, “Confessing in the Third Person” to this subject. Attridge reminds us that Coeztee has a tendency not have personal authorial presence in his novels and as such any hint of confession in his novels would undoubtedly arouse interest. To fill the gaps where Coetzee’s sentiments would be, Attridge frequently refers to his interviews with David Attwell in Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews where Coetzee’s responses are nonetheless neither simple nor direct, like the staged confessions in his novels: “... in a larger sense all writing is autobiography: everything that you write, including criticism and fiction, writes you as you write it.”

From his discussion of confessions, Attridge segues to an analysis of autobiographies or ‘autrebiographies,’ a term coined appropriately for Coetzee’s novels Boyhood (1997) and Youth (2002), both narrated in the third person. In typical Coetzee fashion, the two novels reveal the lack of interest on the part of the author to either avoid responsibility, seek forgiveness or to show remorse—Boyhood “enacts the truth of confession, and writing as confession, without transgression, repentance, or absolution.” The book ends with an epilogue—an analysis of the last of Coetzee’s novels at the time of publication, Elizabeth Costello—on a protagonist of the same name who is often said to be Coetzee’s alter ego. And possibly like Coetzee, Costello opines that “as a writer of fiction, she cannot have beliefs; she has to be entirely open to those who speak through her,” once again depicting Coetzee’s reluctance in advocating any kind of authorial identity in his novels.

In the preface to his book, Attridge extols the virtues of Coetzee’s novels on their ability to “grip the reader in proceeding from sentence to sentence and from page to page” and also the way “they raise and illuminate questions of immense practical importance to all of us.” Attridge’s appreciation of Coetzee’s economical style is unmistakable, describing it as writing “which invites the reader to savor it, sentence by sentence, word by word, for its economy and efficiency; and although the style of each novel has its own unmistakable character, the reader receives the consistent impression in all of them that words have been chosen with extraordinary care.”

The book does serve as an introduction to Coetzee’s writing for those just starting to get acquainted with it and is a valuable resource for researchers and Coetzee enthusiasts alike. Each chapter explores the issues that are relevant to readers of literature, reminding us of the “responsibility to the other,” “trust and betrayal,” “creativity and artistic commitment,” “confession” and “truth to the self,” and although they are self-contained to discuss the specific texts, Attridge does constantly make allusions to other novels in Coetzee’s bibliography, making it an elliptical and holistic understanding of Coetzee’s work.

COETZEE J.M. [1940-] Novelist, literary critic; winner of the 2003 Nobel Prize for Literature. Born John Maxwell Coetzee in Cape Town, South Africa. Novels Summertime (2009); Diary of a Bad Year (2007: shortlisted for the 2008 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award/Christina Stead Prize for Fiction); Slow Man (2005: shortlisted for the 2006 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award/Christina Stead Prize for Fiction and the 2007 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award); Elizabeth Costello (2003: winner of the 2004 Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction; shortlisted for the 2004 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award/Christina Stead Prize for Fiction and the 2004 Miles Franklin Literary Award); The Lives of Animals (2001); Disgrace (1999: winner of the 1999 Booker Prize for Fiction); The Master of Petersburg (1994: winner of The Irish Times International Fiction Prize for 1995); Age of Iron (1990); Foe (1986); Life & Times of Michael K (1983: winner of the 1983 Booker Prize for Fiction and the Prix Étranger Femina); Waiting for the Barbarians (1980: winner of the the CNA Prize, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize); In the Heart of the Country (1977: winner of the CNA Prize); Dusklands (1974) Nonfiction Inner Workings: Essays 2000-2005 (2007); Stranger Shores: Essays 1986-1999 (2000); The Novel in Africa (1999); Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship (1996); Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews (1992); White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa (1988) Memoirs Youth: Scenes from Provincial Life II (2002); Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life (1997) Translation Landscape With Rowers: Poetry from the Netherlands (trans. from the Dutch) (2004)

JANET TAY is a litigation lawyer by training, but decided to leave the legal profession to pursue her first love—books and writing. She is now a book editor at a Malaysian publishing house in Kuala Lumpur. She is also working towards a Master’s degree in English Literature at Universiti Malaya, Kuala Lumpur.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The MPH-Alliance Bank National Short Story Prize 2009

27 October 2008 - 31 March 2009
In Support of Malaysian Writing in English

MPH Group of Companies has collaborated with Alliance Bank Malaysia Bhd as our main sponsor and the Malay Mail as our official media partner to create a national short-story prize in support of the creative arts and to encourage Malaysians to showcase their literary prowess. The Prize is also supported by Reader’s Digest, Discovery Channel Magazine, Seventeen Magazine Malaysia, The British Council, the National Library of Malaysia and the Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage.

We aim to promote the following objectives through the administering of the Prize:
  • To encourage reading and writing in the English language;
  • To recognise new writers and give them increased confidence to pursue writing as a career;
  • To make more widely known the work of rising literary talents;
  • To encourage more people to write about their lives in Malaysia; and
  • To highlight a diversity of cultures, voices and viewpoints.
We hope that the creation and administration of a short-story competition with substantial prizes, courtesy of Alliance Bank Malaysia, will help foster talented Malaysian writers to move on to publishing books of their own. It is also a platform to encourage Malaysians to write about their lives in Malaysia, overcoming ethnic, linguistic and cultural differences through the common language of English.

Two categories
The competition is divided into two categories: adult and teen. There is no specific theme for the adult category; for the teen category, the theme is ‘Staying and Leaving.’ The Prize is open to Malaysian nationals and residents only. The word count is between 2,500 and 7,000 words for the adult category and between 2,000 and 4,000 words for the teen category. Stories must be previously unpublished and each writer is only allowed to submit a maximum of two entries.

MPH Group as administrators of the Prize will select a longlist from the entries received, from which the judges will select a shortlist of six stories. The winner of the adult category will receive RM5,000 cash, a laptop and magazine subscriptions; the other five shortlisted entries will each receive a laptop and magazine subscriptions. The winner of the teen category will receive RM2,000 cash, a subnotebook and magazine subscriptions; the other five shortlisted entries will each receive a subnotebook and magazine subscriptions.

Entry forms
Entry forms are available at all MPH bookstores and in the October-December 2008 issue of MPH’s Quill magazine or can be downloaded from The competition is free for MPH Readers’ Circle members and Alliance Bank Malaysia cardholders; otherwise, a minimum purchase of RM10 from any MPH bookstore is required. Entries are to be sent by post to MPH Group (M) Sdn Bhd (address below) or dropped off at collection boxes in selected MPH bookstores. Faxed or emailed entries will not be accepted and manuscripts will not be returned.

For full terms and conditions, please log on to

For other information, please contact:

Ms. Kuah Sze Mei
MPH Group (M) Sdn Bhd
Lot 1, 1st Floor, Bangunan TH
No. 5 Jalan Bersatu, Section 13/4
Petaling Jaya, Selangor
Tel: (03) 7960 7334

Mr. Eric Forbes
MPH Group Publishing Sdn Bhd
Lot 1, 1st Floor, Bangunan TH
No. 5 Jalan Bersatu, Section 13/4
Petaling Jaya, Selangor
Tel: (03) 7960 7334

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


Who is the Monster? Dissecting Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus
JANET TAY explores a favourite classic made popular by movies and remakes and discovers there’s more to it than just a zombie-like creature and terrified damsels

MENTION THE NAME ‘FRANKENSTEIN’ and most people who haven’t read the novel would immediately think of the generic monster-type creature with bolts in his neck, a rectangular face and a ridiculously disproportionate, oversized upper body that walks around in a zombie-like manner, making sounds unlike that of a human being. They are in fact referring to the nameless creature in Frankenstein, a creation of Victor Frankenstein, an overzealous student of philosophy who allows his enthusiasm to blind him not only to the ethical implications of playing God but also to the irresponsible and devastating consequences of him unleashing a creature who could potentially (and eventually does) wreak havoc on humankind.

Before I read Frankenstein, I merely had hints of its story. After all, popular culture has made Frankenstein so infamous that one cannot hear the name ‘Frankenstein’ without conjuring the image of the monster with bolts in his neck. When I began to read the novel, I was completely immersed in the dark journey of Victor Frankenstein which not only deals with his personal despair and turmoil as a result of his personal tragedies but also the constant struggle between Good and Evil as well as the philosophy and rhetoric of Mary Shelley throughout the novel which constantly questions the nature of the individual man, the nature of society, and wrestles with the notion of whether Man is inherently good or bad. I was surprised at the presence of philosophy throughout the novel; my preconceptions were that Frankenstein was a Gothic/horror novel and dark in nature. Instead, there were many layers which one could unravel as one travels with Victor Frankenstein on his agonising journey.

What was also enjoyable about the novel was its seamlessness. Unlike other authors such as Jane Austen or even Charlotte Brontë, Shelley does not linger in one spot, at least not for a period that one would notice, but constantly moves Victor and the plot towards his destination.

Although frequently described as horror fiction, I found it to be a novel of suspense and intrigue. It is nevertheless highly disturbing in its questions pertaining to the nature of human beings and Shelley’s illustration of the monstrosities that can be committed whether by ordinary men and women or a physically horrifying figure such as the creation of Frankenstein.

During the reading and analysis of the novel, Frankenstein’s creature reminded me of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. Certainly there we are presented with a completely different physique; Heathcliff is an exotic, dark and unconventionally handsome figure but also regarded, due to his unbridled passion-induced ways, as a “lying fiend, a monster, and not a human being!”

I was also reminded of the fall of Man from the garden of Eden; Genesis from the Bible and also John Milton’s Paradise Lost immediately come to mind. Shelley herself does make references to Frankenstein’s creature as Adam and also as the fallen angel (“Remember, that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed.”); we are to answer that question, it seems, of which persona we are to place the creature.

Past critics have suggested that Shelley may have held the view that humankind was to be punished for introducing science and technology which may ultimately result in its own devastation. However, my reading of her novel does not evoke such thoughts. I felt that Victor Frankenstein’s discovery could have been regarded by Shelley as a quantum leap in the progress of science but that she felt these experiments or discoveries should equally come with the requisite responsibility.

The question in Frankenstein begs to be answered; who is the monster? Victor, our Prometheus, already indicates his pleasure from playing God in the first chapter where he describes his sentiments prior to the introduction of Elizabeth Lavenza, a “child fairer than a pictured cherub—a creature who seemed to shed radiance from her looks” to their home by his mother who “presented Elizabeth to [him] as her promised gift.” We can see that Victor’s proprietary inclinations and desire to play God begin in his childhood and progress in young adulthood when his curiosity of the “secrets of heaven and earth” is encouraged by a professor, M. Waldman, who charms Victor with “his voice the sweetest I had ever heard.” His propensity to research into the possibilities of resurrection of the dead is perhaps compounded by the death of his mother, which naturally causes much grief to Victor but also keeps him in a denial which prevents him from accepting that death is natural and inevitable.

Victor’s personality is a dark one, his temper “was sometimes violent” and his “passions vehement” but with the existence of the symbols of virtue in his life—Elizabeth and Henry Clerval, his best friend, Victor never really crosses the line to evil and darkness although he inadvertently creates the creature and his ensuing neglect and denial of the same was later to be his greatest sin imaginable. Unlike Pip whose virtues are kept in check by Joe Gargery in Dickens’s Great Expectations despite constant temptations, Victor loses the battle between good and evil when he succumbs to the temptation of ego and pride which leads him to embark on the project of breaking through the “ideal bounds” of life and death when he says: “Pursuing these reflections, I thought, that if I could bestow animation upon lifeless matter, I might in process of time (although I now found it impossible) renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption.”

When Victor stands back to observe his creation on a “dreary night of November,” he is horrified to discover that he had created a physically abhorrent being which was too repellant even to look at, that caused him to “[rush] out of the room, and [continue] a long time traversing [his] bedchamber, unable to compose [his] mind to sleep.”

Where one might have earlier felt ambivalent about Victor, it is at this juncture that feelings of horror and disgust at Victor are evoked for his irresponsibility and cowardice in failing to care for his creature, deformed as it was, and chooses instead to avoid the consequences of his action. The ensuing events of murder by the creature of Victor’s loved ones—beginning with Victor’s brother William and later progressing to Henry and Elizabeth appear to insinuate the presence of karmic retribution. One wonders whether Shelley had intended to depict the idea of just deserts, that Victor’s irresponsibility and cruelty to the creature should naturally punish the former in return.

The concept of the monster in the novel is a multi-faceted one. There are at least four ideas of the monster: the creature himself, a physical deformity; Victor, the irresponsible Creator; the cruel and judgmental nature of society and the failure of justice systems which convict the innocent based on face value. Like the creature, Justine is convicted on circumstantial and superficial evidence and she is not given an opportunity to fully defend herself. Frankenstein’s creature may be a murderer, yet I could not help wondering whether he was truly evil or merely an overgrown child who was badly hurt and desperate for love, and never had anyone to teach him how to tell right from wrong. A parallel can be drawn here to Lennie in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men where he tells Curley’s wife the reason he killed the puppy in innocence and inadvertence is somewhat reminiscent of how the creature had killed William: “He was so little,” said Lennie. “I was jus’ playin’ with him ... an’ he made like he’s gonna bite me ... an’ I made like I was gonna smack him ... an’ ... and I done it. An’ then he was dead.” Later, Lennie accidentally kills Curley’s wife (in much the same way as his previous killings of a rabbit and the puppy) and his ensuing remorse suggests that he does not understand the severity of his actions, only that they were a “bad thing”: “And she continued to struggle, and her eyes were wild with terror. He shook her then, and he was angry with her. ‘Don’t you go yellin’,’ he said, and he shook her; and her body flopped like a fish. And she was still, for Lennie had broken her neck.”

Although the creature in Frankenstein possesses a more sophisticated level of comprehension, he nevertheless illustrates his amorality in his murder of a young child, whom he understands would “create desolation” but only because he revels in a childish desire to hurt Victor as he had been hurt: “The child still struggled, and loaded me with epithets which carried despair to my heart; I grasped his throat to silence him, and in a moment he lay dead at my feet.”

Chapter ten of the novel begins the creature’s sorrowful tale of abandonment and neglect, not only by Frankenstein but also society at large. I was moved by Shelley’s criticism of the judgmental and superficial nature of society which does not afford any opportunity for the wretched to speak in their own defence. Shelley’s firm grasp of philosophy is most apparent in the creature’s rhetorical exchange with Frankenstein. I found myself not only impatient to unravel the rest of Shelley’s story but also provoked to absorb her philosophical musings on the reality of human nature and how unforgiving it can be. Frankenstein’s creature echoes Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s Metamorphosis and both ponder on the seemingly meaninglessness of life—to be born into suffering and then to die on a funeral pile in “an agony of the torturing flames.” It is with this sentiment that I savoured the ending of the novel, with the solemn contemplation of Victor’s burden and journey of guilt, and the creation of a creature who only knew pain and never the true purpose of his own creation other than to satiate the ego of an irresponsible Creator.

JANET TAY is a litigation lawyer by training, but decided to leave the legal profession to pursue her first love—books and writing. She is now a book editor at a Malaysian publishing house in Kuala Lumpur. She is also working towards a Master’s degree in English Literature at Universiti Malaya, Kuala Lumpur.

Reproduced from the April-June 2008 issue of Quill magazine

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

DECONSTRUCTING THE CLASSICS Charles Dickens's Great Expectations

The Loss of Innocence in Pip’s Progress
Witty, warm and wonderful—Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations has entertained and moved readers all over the world since its publication in 1861. JANET TAY explores the gritty side of Pip who learns life’s valuable lessons the hard way

IT HAS BEEN SAID THAT Great Expectations is regarded as one of Charles Dickens’s warmest novels. This is of little surprise when one journeys through Pip’s progress from a mischievous, witty and sensitive seven-year-old to a sombre, reflective man in his thirties. Throughout the novel we are met with Pip’s ups and downs, we share his deepest thoughts and remorse on life, morality, good and evil, and, above all, the experience of humanity and the weaknesses of man. Since Great Expectations is a Bildungsroman, we follow Pip through his loss of innocence as he unravels the reality and bitterness of life as it unfolds. Although there are instances where one may think that the loss of innocence that Pip experiences taints him in his progression to adulthood, the reader is swayed by Dickens’s efforts to distill some “soul of goodness in things evil” as Pip resists the temptation to fall from innocence in bitterness and instead learns from his experiences and becomes a better man for it.

The 1861 review of Great Expectations in The Atlantic Monthly accurately described the development of the chapters in the novel as “pleasing electric shocks to intelligent curiosity.” What provide even greater pleasure are the bittersweet electric shocks of realisation and understanding that Dickens subtly presses his readers to ponder and reflect upon, such as the importance of family and relationships that are based on true love and virtue. On the judgment of man, one will observe that the seemingly murderous “warmint,” Magwitch, who is hastily prejudged by Pip; the arrogant Pip after having discovered he had come into fortune, the proud Estella; and the selfish, bitter Miss Havisham all have a redeeming quality to them, even if some are realised too late.

Although Pip, orphaned as a child, is brought up by his sister who, harsh with her “Ram-pages,” is seldom fair to him, her husband, the gentle giant figure of Joe Gargery always provides a sanctuary for Pip in his tumultuous childhood. Throughout the novel, one can see that recollections of or references to Joe would always transport Pip back to his childhood or evoke feelings of home and warmth. Where Pip walks the tightrope between good and evil, Joe would feature prominently as an Angel in the House (a symbol of piety and purity) who brings him back to innocent days.

In his essay on class in Victorian society, James Eli Adams discusses the impact of industrialisation in Britain beginning in the latter half of the 18th century on social order. It created opportunities for different classes to intermingle as was never done before the advent of industrial capitalism. As Adams explains, the intermingling of different classes prioritised “outwardly trivial distinctions” such as the way one dressed and carried himself. This brings us to Pip’s meeting of Estella and Miss Havisham, where for the first time in his life, Pip is forced to realise that the society he keeps may be beneath that of Estella and Miss Havisham. Estella’s contempt for Pip traumatises him badly; her contempt for him is “contagious” as it rubs off on him and he sees things through her flawed eyes. Pip begins to feel ashamed of the things that never bothered him before—his appearance, his demeanour and, worst of all, his upbringing by Joe, the person that he loves most: “I wished Joe had been rather more genteelly brought up, and then I should have been so too.” The power of Estella”s words has such a great effect on Pip that she causes him to break down and he cannot bear her looking at him “insolently as if [he] were a dog in disgrace.”

The day of meeting Estella is an illuminating one although Pip’s world is cast into darkness afterwards. His humble origins form a large part of his shortcomings in Estella’s view, but it is also this painful prompting that causes Pip to question whether he should have greater expectations in life beyond that of a blacksmith in a small town.

Pip as a child is already exposed to the obsession with material wants from that of his sister and Mr. Pumblechook who only view his visit to Miss Havisham’s as a purpose to gaining “property” or “a handsome premium” for binding Pip to apprentice to some “genteel trade.” As soon as Mr. Pumblechook learns of Pip’s fortune, he is anxious to use Pip as a means to procure wealth when he wants Pip to be a “sleeping partner” in a business venture where Pip “would have nothing to do but walk in, by self or deputy, whenever he pleased, and examine the books, and walk in twice a year and take his profits away in his pocket, to the tune of fifty per cent, it appeared to him that that might be an opening for a young gentleman of spirit combined with property, which would be worthy of his attention.” Following Mr. Pumblechook’s obsequiousness, we see that Pip himself now understands the power of money. The emphasis on material possessions and wealth are sentiments echoed in London, when later Pip encounters Wemmick, a legal clerk who constantly reminds Pip that “portable property” is of utmost importance.

However, in London, Pip is careless with his new fortune and in the reckless fashion of a young man, he begins to spends money unnecessarily and runs up debts. A very different Pip lives here, a far cry from little Pip who regarded his sister’s kitchen as an elegant saloon. He now acquires expensive tastes in furnishings and even has a servant, a boy who does his every bidding (even going to Hyde Park to see what time it is). Pip’s contemptible description of him clearly shows that he has forgotten himself as a young boy once, also from a poor family.

Pip’s loss of innocence begins with his childhood encounter with Magwitch in the marshes and ironically ends with his conciliation with Magwitch towards the death of the latter. Pip’s disgust at the “taint of prison and crime” magnifies his trauma at the revelation of Magwitch as his secret benefactor to his “great expectations.” However, Pip later finds out that Magwitch has his own story of the loss of innocence as a child who was deprived of a normal childhood and was forced to resort to crime to survive.

Eventually, Pip manages to discard his petty judgments against Magwitch and stays by the latter’s side through his trial and subsequently his death. Through his nexus to Magwitch, Pip is forced to observe criminal trial proceedings, of which a bleak picture is painted. It may be said that Pip pays his penance through his care for Magwitch; not only does it absolve Pip of his guilt towards Magwitch but also towards Joe. Pip sees Magwitch as his second chance at redeeming himself for his treatment of Joe. Pip’s virtue shines brightest when he ensures that Magwitch dies a happy man; he tells Magwitch on the latter’s deathbed that his daughter, thought lost, was alive and beautiful, and that Pip loved her. Magwitch’s reaction is most moving for it shows the immense gratitude and peace that he experiences near death which he never did in his lifetime.

Pip’s penance is not unlike that of the journey of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. However, where the ancient mariner is doomed to impart his tale forever, and Frankenstein’s burden only ends upon his unhappy death, the ending of Great Expectations is a far happier one. Although Pip does not end up fulfilling his great expectations, far from being broken by his loss of innocence, he emerges a wiser man from it. It may have been his shallow pursuit of Estella that led him to seek his fortunes, but much has to be said about the valuable lessons that he learns along the way.

Although the notion of the loss of innocence inevitably features in a Bildungsroman, here we see innocence lost and regained come full circle. The completion of Pip’s progress does not end in bitter resignation despite his harrowing journey; present instead is a sense of hope that innocence is never truly lost but evolves into a profound understanding of virtue and human nature.

JANET TAY is a litigation lawyer by training, but decided to leave the legal profession to pursue her first love—books and writing. She is now a book editor at a Malaysian publishing house in Kuala Lumpur. She is also working towards a Master’s degree in English Literature at Universiti Malaya, Kuala Lumpur.

Reproduced from the October-December 2008 issue of Quill magazine

Henry HITCHINGS wins the 2007/8 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize

LEXICAL WIZARD Henry Hitchings has won the 2007/8 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English (John Murray/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008), his gripping account of the evolution of English vocabulary over the centuries. It is the first nonfiction work to take the prize.

Monday, November 24, 2008


A Conversation with John Berendt

The master of the nonfiction novel shares his thoughts on New Journalism and his favourite American writers with JANET TAY

JOHN BERENDT is the best-selling author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1994) and The City of Falling Angels (2005). In 1994, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, the true-life story of murder in Savannah, Georgia, was published with a small initial print run and little advance publicity but went on to sell more than two and a half million copies in hardcover, spent more than four years on The New York Times nonfiction best-seller list (a record that still stands) and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

In his second book, The City of Falling Angels, he explores another mysterious, derelict city, Venice, and its cast of aristocrats and lowlifes in the aftermath of the fire that destroyed the historic La Fenice opera house in 1996. “Amid this swirl of carnivalesque plumage, Berendt’s voice is gentle and tolerant, reveling in human complexities,” Adam Goodheart wrote in the New York Times Book Review.


You were an associate editor of Esquire from 1961 to 1969, editor of New York magazine from 1977 to 1979 and a columnist for The New Yorker from 1982 to 1994. Was it a natural transition from being a journalist to a published author?
Absolutely. As an editor, I did a fair amount of writing myself, in addition to advising writers on shaping their articles. I joined the editorial staff of Esquire right after I graduated from college. That was during the 1960s, when Esquire was pioneering the “New Journalism,” publishing articles by writers like Tom Wolfe, Terry Southern, Michael Herr, Gay Talese, Gore Vidal, Rex Reed, among others. The New Journalism was, and is, reportage—nonfiction—written in the style of fiction, using the literary devices that novelists and short-story writers normally use: extensive dialogue, at times even including the interior thoughts of characters (obtained through interviews, of course), detailed descriptions, action moving from scene to scene, and the story structured with a beginning, middle and end. The finished work reads like a novel or a short story, but it’s nonfiction. The intended effect is that the New Journalism style becomes more engaging than the old, but no less true. Both of my books could be described as New Journalism in style. They are sometimes called “nonfiction novels.” But it’s inaccurate to call them simply novels.

Is there anything that you miss about being a journalist? Would you say that your experience as a journalist has impeded or benefited you as a novelist?
I don’t miss being a journalist, because I still am a journalist. I still interview subjects extensively, with and without a tape recorder, as any reporter would. And I conduct other sorts of research—reading newspapers, journals and books, consulting photographs, police records and so forth. If what you mean is, ‘Do I miss writing articles for magazines,’ the answer is no. I take so much time researching a piece and then writing and polishing it that I’d much rather spend that time working on a book. I find it so much more rewarding. I can get much deeper into a subject than I can with a magazine piece. I spent eight years working on my first book and nine years on my second. That’s total immersion, and it’s very satisfying.

What is the biggest difference between writing fiction and nonfiction, if any?
Apart from fiction being essentially made up and nonfiction being true, there are a great many similarities between the two. Most good fiction comes out of real life, and sometimes it is extremely close to it. Novelists, after all, draw on their own lives in their writing. They base their characters and stories on people they have known and situations they’ve experienced; then they take it to the fictional level by using their imaginations. Fiction is liberating for a writer because the story does not have to be factually accurate; authors can impose words and actions on their characters in order to make a point. At the same time, for a fictional story to be believable, certain details must be true to life. For example, a story based in a hospital must get the medical details absolutely correct, and the hospital language and routine must be accurate as well.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil made you an overnight success in 1994. Did you anticipate how well the book would do when you were writing it?
I had no idea that Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil would be received with such enthusiasm. I did have the feeling that if people picked up the book and read it, they’d like it. But I thought that it would be, at best, a cult success, because the story is so quirky. While I was writing it, friends asked me if I thought it would become a best-seller, and I told them there was no chance of that happening. My story had a black drag queen, a voodoo priestess, a gay murderer, a madman who walked flies glued to threads and planned to drop poison into the Savannah water supply. I was fairly certain I wasn’t writing a mainstream book, but it seems that during the eight years I was working on it, the mainstream widened enough to include all of the above.

The movie version of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil came out in 1997. How important do you think the role of the movie industry is in the promotion of literature? Do you think the increasingly commercial nature of the publishing industry will affect the quality of literature?
Despite the commercial nature of the publishing industry, there are still many publishing houses willing to publish literary books even though they expect modest sales at best. None of Flannery O’Connor’s books, for example, ever sold more than 3,000 copies, and she was arguably one of the most important American literary figures of the 20th century. That said, it is true that even the literary houses are always on the lookout for blockbuster books that will make a profit and subsidise prestigious books that do not. And even those publishers may place a limit on the number of literary works they publish. As to your question about the movie industry’s influence on the promotion of literature, movies always trigger massive sales of the books they are based on, whether they are commercial books or true literature.

The City of Falling Angels, your most recent book, is set in Venice. How much research did you have to do when you were writing this book? Did you have to visit or live there?
Since what I write is nonfiction, 90 per cent of the time I spend on a book has to be research. I started working on The City of Falling Angels three days after a fire destroyed the La Fenice opera house in Venice, and I finished writing it nine years later. In that time, I made 18 trips to Venice, where I lived in a rented apartment. My visits added up to two full years living in Venice. For Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil I lived virtually full-time in Savannah for about six years; that whole project took eight years. For both books, I submerged myself in the place and the story for a good long time. I’m never in a hurry.

What are your thoughts on book tours and the need for authors to constantly promote themselves? Do you think without these efforts, books are a tough sell?
There is no doubt that book tours, which can be exhausting, help sell books. If all goes well, the author becomes the subject of newspaper and magazine coverage and is interviewed on radio and television. Crowds show up at book signings. Something has to bring the book to the attention of readers, whether it’s the reputation of the author, the nature of the subject, its newsworthiness, or publicity generated through book tour itself. The best hope is that the book will eventually inspire favourable word of mouth. It’s been my experience that a recommendation from a friend means more to the reading public than a good review.

Will this be your first trip to Ubud, Bali? Had you heard of the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival before and have you attended any other literary festivals in the U.S. or other parts of the world? Do you think literary festivals are necessary for the benefit of writers and readers alike?
I’ve never been to Bali before and had not heard of the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, but over the years I’ve attended about two dozen literary festivals. They are proliferating like crazy in America and all over the world. They give readers exposure to writers and vice versa, and they also provide an opportunity for writers to meet each other. At the Jaipur Literary Festival in January 2008, for example, I met Indra Sinha, whose Animal’s People had just been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction. I picked it up and read it right there at the festival and was enthralled by it. Sinha will be at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival as well, and I look forward to seeing him again. I wouldn’t say literary festivals are necessary, but they are pleasant, often stimulating, and as far as I can tell they do no harm.

What kinds of books did you read when you were growing up?
I was introduced to literature by my parents, particularly my father, who read aloud to my sister and me such books as Treasure Island, The Count of Monte Cristo, A Tale of Two Cities, The Wonderful Adventures of Nils and The Swiss Family Robinson. When I started to read on my own, I launched into Dickens, beginning with Nicholas Nickleby and moving on from there to other Dickens books. My parents emphasised the importance of the classics, so that’s the route I took.

Who are some of your favourite American writers? And why?
When I read Truman Capote I am struck by his sense of the dramatic, by his dazzling imagery, his playfulness, his daring, and his ability to entertain no matter what he is writing about. I admire Tom Wolfe for his stylistic originality, for the intelligence and depth of knowledge he brings to everything he writes, for the uniqueness of his perceptions, for his sense of humour and even for his abundant confidence.

Other favourites are: Edith Wharton, whose novel The Age of Innocence is her best and one of my all-time favourite novels. Though written in 1920, it reads as though it was written yesterday. Wharton’s character descriptions are among the best by any writer. Flannery O’Connor is one of the half-dozen finest American writers of the 20th century, in my opinion. A very dark humour runs throughout her stories, and she has an uncanny facility for describing people’s faces in highly original and imaginative ways. Philip Roth: his novels always cut to the heart of social issues; they are brilliantly written and structured so that you become deeply involved and cannot put the book down. Kurt Vonnegut’s novels have a cult following. His humour has abundant charm and a strong element of fantasy, which he uses very effectively in driving home his moral message. Toni Morrison’s Beloved is deeply moving, even shocking, and yet written with tender insight. It has been voted the best American novel of the last 25 years in a poll among critics and writers, and I agree. Tennessee Williams: though he is best known for his plays, his short stories are marvellously colourful and entertaining. Over the years, I’ve given copies of The Collected Stories of Tennessee Williams as gifts to dozens of friends. I admire Cormac McCarthy for his crisp, stark imagery and his pared-down writing style. (I don’t care much, I must admit, for his odd tendency to leave out quotation marks, though graphically it does underscore the unadorned leanness of his prose.) Hunter S. Thompson: he brought his unconventional life into his writing and became his own best subject. He was truly the hippest writer on the American scene.

What are you reading at the moment?
I’ve just picked up a short book of nonfiction—Ryszard Kapuściński’s The Emperor—having read (I can’t remember where) a mention of it by Salman Rushdie who said it was one of the best books ever written and that he had been tipped off to it by the publisher and editor-in-chief of Alfred A. Knopf, Sonny Mehta, who said it was the best book he had ever read. It’s about the emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie. I expect to read it in one happy gulp.

JANET TAY is a litigation lawyer by training, but decided to leave the legal profession to pursue her first love—books and writing. She is now a book editor at a Malaysian publishing house in Kuala Lumpur. She is also working towards a Master’s degree in English Literature at Universiti Malaya, Kuala Lumpur.

Reproduced from the special 2008 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival issue of Quill magazine

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Nam LE's The Boat wins the 2008 Dylan Thomas Prize

HARVARD REVIEW fiction editor Nam LE has won the 2008 Dylan Thomas Prize for Young Writers, one of the world’s biggest literary awards for writing, worth some £60,000. He won it for The Boat (Random House/Canongate, 2008), his début collection of stories, which was also longlisted for the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award a couple months ago. The stories are set in the slums of Colombia, the streets of Tehran, then from New York to Iowa City, and from a tiny fishing village in Australia to a foundering vessel in the South China Sea.

Le is the second writer to win the prestigious biennial award, which was set up in 2006 in honour of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas and is given to the best young writer in the English-speaking world. Welsh novelist Rachel Trezise won it in 2006 for her short-story collection, Fresh Apples (Parthian Books, 2006).

The Dylan Thomas Prize, awarded once every two years by the University of Wales in Swansea is intended to encourage creative talent in writers under the age of 30, and is open to works of fiction, poetry and drama in English.

Heartiest congratulations, Nam!

Read Janet Tay’s review of The Boat.
Also read my short interview with Nam Le.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

George ORWELL's Essays

A NEW AND SUMPTUOUS two-volume edition of critical and narrative essays by prolific novelist, essayist and literary critic George Orwell, published by Harcourt in October 2008. George Packer, a staff writer at The New Yorker, is the editor of these two collections: Facing Unpleasant Facts and All Art Is Propaganda. Excellent Christmas gifts.

Friday, November 21, 2008

David MALOUF wins the Australia-Asia Literary Award

Australian novelist, short-story writer and poet David Malouf has won the inaugural Australia-Asia Literary Award, Australia’s newest and richest literary prize, for his short-story collection, The Complete Stories (Random House, 2008), which gathers both a new collection, Every Move You Make, and all of his previously published stories. “It’s a wonderful piece of writing, a combination of decades of work, and it captures the human condition in such a deep and intense way,” said Nury Vittachi, one of the judges of the prize. “His characters are very ordinary people and he captures the intense joys and sadness of ordinary life.” The A$110,000 prize was awarded in Perth on Friday, November 21, 2008.


A Suitable Reader
Zafar Anjum talks to journalist and literary blogger Deepika Shetty

DEEPIKA SHETTY is a Singapore-based Indian journalist and literary blogger. As literary editor—and as a result of her passion for books and writers—she had had many opportunities to get up close and personal with a galaxy of writers that ordinary people can only dream about: Anita Desai, Kiran Desai, Shashi Tharoor, Paul Theroux, Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, Michael Ondaatje, Romesh Gunesekera, Alexander McCall Smith, Nury Vittachi, Chitra Banerji Divakaruni, Neil Gaiman and Suhayl Saadi, among others.

Those who tread the literary red carpet in this part of the world—Singapore Writers Festival, Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, Byron Bay Writers Festival and Galle Writers Festival—would most probably have seen her in action, grilling celebrity authors or moderating panels of writers. In the last few years, Shetty has been actively engaged in not only moderating writers’ sessions in these festivals but also organising them.

Until late last year, Shetty was associated with two leading TV programmes in Singapore—Show Prime Time and Off the Shelves, the latter an interactive programme with authors. She now works with The Straits Times in Singapore.

Hailing from Chandigarh in northern India, Shetty has a master’s degree in political science from Punjab University. She started writing book reviews for The Tribune, which paved the path for her to become a full-fledged journalist. In India, she was a journalist with The Times of India and the newsmagazine India Today, before moving to Singapore almost a decade ago to achieve greater heights in her career.

How did her love affair with books and writers start? “By not being forced to read books,” Shetty, who has been writing book reviews since the age of 18, answers matter-of-factly. “My mother surrounded us with books and comics, but never pushed us to read them.”

So, what did she read as a little girl? “My sister and I read a lot of Amar Chitra Katha, Asterix, Champak, Twinkle, a fair bit of Enid Blyton, the Schoolgirl comics, even Archie at a slightly later stage.”

She reminisces about the lovely summers she spent as a child at her grandparents’ house, another place where she could escape into a fantasy world with her favourite books. “We spent every summer at my grandmother’s house and it was filled with books,” she says. “The eclectic collection traced its roots to my grandfather, a war hero who received several coveted army honours in India.”

Shetty dusted those books religiously every year. The dusting effort would earn her a princely sum of two rupees every week that she would save up to buy the Schoolgirl comics at the Capital Book Store in Chandigarh. In addition to all those books, her aunt had studied literature and she knew all the names even before she knew what they were about. “There was Shakespeare, Hemingway, Pearl S. Buck, Anita Desai, R.K. Narayan and a whole lot more,” she says. “But till the age of 15, I hadn’t made any serious effort to read any of their work. After my 10th Board exams, when I was liberated from the pain of having to deal with Maths, Physics, Chemistry, Biology and veered towards Humanities, something happened. I started reading! I’d spend all my spare time in the college library. If it was a holiday and the library was open, you’d find me there. The librarian would always urge me to head back home when it was time to lock up. I think by the time I was done with my Bachelor of Arts degree, I would have read every single book the library had to offer. I’d even made recommendations for new book buys. It was great to be taken seriously.”

Shetty’s journey that started at the age of 15 hasn’t showed any signs of slowing down. “There is always a book in my bag,” she admits. “I can read anywhere: in the cab, on the bus, by the pool, before lunch, after lunch—you name it. Even now, when I go back to my grandmother’s house there is a standard joke about my working towards a PhD in reading.”

Her love of reading has remained stronger than ever. “I’ve travelled to so many places and made so many friends thanks to the wonderful world of books,” she says effusively. “Sometimes I feel I’m in Bangladesh, other times in the Sunderbans, or feeling the pain of the war in Biafra; books can do that to you. It’s an intense experience. I love watching movies, too, though the movie experience doesn’t have the magic of books. You can take your book anywhere, it can be a part of your life, you mark the lines that moved you, a couple of years later, you revisit the places marked by the Post-it notes and it feels like it’s time for another adventure again.”

Reproduced from the special 2008 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival issue of Quill magazine

This is a reworked version of an interview which first appeared in India Se, Asia’s first and only magazine for global Indians. To find out more about the magazine go to

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Walking softly on the road to MANDALAY

A Land Like None You Know
Patrick Forsyth describes a journey through Burma, a country that won his heart in an instant

BURMA (now called Myanmar) tends to be in the news for all the wrong reasons. People know of its ruthless junta, and about Cyclone Nargis, which wrought such damage and human suffering as it trampled the delta of the Irrawaddy River in May 2008. But this has always been a beguiling and beautiful country, and one I visited largely by chance.

Some months just before the dreadful cyclone wreaked its havoc, I was huddled in a corner with my headphones, praying for the music channel to drown out a noisy neighbour as I flew to Singapore on business, when the song “The Road to Mandalay” by Robbie Williams came on. In my sleepy state I had been thinking about going somewhere I have never been before, if only to get away from the likes of my selfish fellow traveller who snorted and elbowed me every so often, and Mandalay suddenly seemed ideal. I discovered that a major slice of the country could be visited by travelling along the Ayeyarwady River, and once back home from my business I set about planning the trip.

Although I discovered that there are campaigns aiming to persuade travellers not to visit the country because doing so would put money in government coffers, I felt I should see this for myself. This is a vexed area: there is a good case for not supporting the junta, but everyone I met on my journey expressed delight that I was there, and urged me to prompt other people to come too. Many people owe their livelihood to those visitors that do come. In addition to the physical damage Cyclone Nargis did, it also—as any natural disaster does—reduced the number of visitors and this could not have helped locals whose wages depended on tourism.

During my visit, I flew to Yangon, visited Bagan and took a river cruiser, Road to Mandalay, on a journey to Mandalay, the city immortalised in both song and Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem: “By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ eastward to the sea.” The poem echoes the voice of a soldier who has served and suffered in the Burmese wars.

My book, A Land Like None You Know (Bangkok Books, 2008), describes my journey through Burma, the land where time stands still. It is light-hearted, but with the sincere intention of giving a clear view of this beautiful and indeed magical country and its people.

I saw taxis pulled by oxen, learnt how to wear the local skirt-like longyi, discovered the difference between a stupa and a pagoda, and watched the best sunset I have ever seen on the plain of Bagan as the light reflected from the towers of countless ruined pagodas, stretching to the horizon in all directions. These are sights and things that will always remain untouched by any natural disasters that threaten to cast a shadow over them.

When I left, I left in love with this beautiful place and its gentle people, though sad about the signs of repression sometimes glimpsed below the surface. I once read of a Portuguese man describing his country in halting English as “very small, but very much.” Well said; I feel the same, Burma is very much—very, very much.

Patrick Forsyth has visited Southeast Asia over many years for both business and pleasure. The author of many nonfiction books, he has recently added travel writing to his portfolio. He has had two lighthearted travellogues published: First Class At Last! (Marshall Cavendish, 2007) describes a journey on the Eastern & Oriental train running between Singapore and Bangkok, and, just recently, A Land Like None You Know (Bangkok Books, 2008), documenting a journey in the troubled but beguiling country that is Burma.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

2008 Costa Book Awards: Shortlist

1. The Secret Scripture / Sebastian Barry
2. The Other Hand / Chris Cleave
3. A Partisan’s Daughter / Louis de Bernières
4. Trauma / Patrick McGrath

First Novel
1. The Behaviour of Moths / Poppy Adams
2. The Outcast / Sadie Jones
3. Inside the Whale / Jennie Rooney
4. Child 44 / Tom Rob Smith

1. Somewhere Towards The End / Diana Athill
2. Bloomsbury Ballerina / Judith Mackrell
3. If You Don’t Know Me By Now / Sathnam Sanghera
4. Chagall / Jackie Wullschlager

1. For All We Know / Ciaran Carson
2. The Broken Word / Adam Foulds
3. Sunday at the Skin Launderette / Kathryn Simmonds
4. Salvation Jane / Greta Stoddart

1. Ostrich Boys / Keith Gray
2. The Carbon Diaries 2015 / Saci Lloyd
3. Just Henry / Michelle Magorian
4. Broken Soup / Jenny Valentine

The winners in all five categories will be announced on January 5, 2009, while the overall winner of the 2008 Costa Book of the Year will be announced on January 27, 2009