marcel barang

Posts Tagged ‘john irving’

Chronicle of a flood foretold – Day Two

In English, Reading matters on 28/10/2011 at 5:03 pm


8am: Update first. Last night was quite hectic. As the water kept rising, I set about removing what could be removed out of the ground floor. There was no fighting the water: the enemy was within, coming through all cracks in the surrounding cement and baying at all doors, which just can’t be siliconed.
As I figured I had two to three hours to spare, I went to help Khun Lee move things as well, as water had started seeping into her house from the back, never mind the water pump up front. Her husband, my very good friend Karoon, had called earlier from Nepal, asking me to help her before he could ditch his good work there and fly back. [He’ll be back tonight – if he can make it home at all from the airport, that is.]
I used to think my former life companion was a magpie collecting things beyond reason, to the point I felt gagged in her cramped house and migrated here. But Khun Lee, that wisp of a gabbing woman, is something else altogether. For hoarding, the dear woman is in a class of her own. Even though her exasperated husband has taken lately to secrete vanloads of stuff away while she’s nursing at Siriraj Hospital (‘She won’t allow me to throw away ay-nay-thing!’), their house is still stuffed to the point there’s hardly any standing space; you walk through it at your peril. At first, she wouldn’t allow me to remove things, just shift them. ‘Leave this here; I’ll take it up tonight.’ Yeah, right. I had to plead with her and then disregard her altogether (luckily for me, her mobile fell in the water and she was henceforth busy trying to dry it) to clear two or three lorry loads of boxes and plastic bags clearly unmoved for years, plus a washing machine, and her bedding – she meant to spend the night in the lowest part of her house, an additional room built over half of the garage space, and at its level, even though she could see water oozing from the water valve in one corner! I disabused her of the notion, thank you.
After perhaps a couple of hours, I went back to my place and resumed shifting my own things with a double aim in mind: making way for the water without overdoing it. So I removed everything to allow for as high as 50-60cm of water inside; later, if need be, I’ll allow for one metre altogether and shift TV, computer and printer skywards. Beyond that, yom phae – I’ll admit defeat. Inevitably, both the upholstered sofa and matching armchair will suffer. So will the batteries of cheap-wood cupboards. Too bad! Actually, after more than twenty years, they’re all rather in need of replacement.
By 11:30 pm, the water had started to nibble at the lowest part of the veranda, but then seemed to have second thoughts. By midnight, there was no further rise. I dined on boiled fish and cabbage, took a shower and repaired to middle-class air-conditioned splendour on the mezzanine floor to renew my acquaintance with Homer Wells, Dr Larch, Melony and the others. Sleep ensued (no reflection on Irving).

7am: I wake up from pleasant dreams to a miracle: the water has receded during the night by a few centimetres and keeps receding. The sky is lavender blue. Going up to the mid-level bathroom, I can see that the terrain vague at the back is now flooded. A lorry high on wheels and full of people is leaving it.

8am: That was then. Now the water is rising again. I watch it take over the veranda at crawling speed. Some tile joints are sweating browning liquid: water mixed with lacquer from the living room parquet, I guess. I call my daughter to report, wake her up in the process. Her house over there in Phrannok is still spared. Starting to type this on the laptop, I realise I forgot to make a copy of the story I was translating. Oh well, never mind: that one can wait; there are plenty more to ‘kill time’ with, as the French say.

9am:  That’s it! The living room is a budding lake. I’ll keep an eye out for struggling termites that have been feeding on the parquet for the past three or four years: the bugs might start climbing the stairs. In the garage, the long pieces of wood have taken to floating about, and the mostly empty cardboard boxes over them too. Outside, it sounds for a while as if quite a few tempers are frayed, what with one and all dismayed by the intrusion and the prospect of more: we all know tomorrow will be worse tide-wise and Sunday … Or perhaps it’s just this Sino-Thai cop family that has just moved into a townhouse two units to my left. They don’t speak: they SHOUT and sound as if they are perpetually quarrelling. Grey skies. Outside temperature: 28°C.

12am: Ankle-deep. I shuffle slowly through the living room to make as few waves as possible. Leaves tickling your feet are disquieting. They’ve floated in, even though the mosquito doors are closed. I have a cooking problem: the new Picnic burner is defective and won’t allow me to cook anything at low heat; unfortunately, the microwave oven on top of the fridge won’t work, the plug it shares with the fridge being loose and almost out of reach. The fridge still works. The only recourse: the electric hotplate of the main stove, which I seldom use because the plug is within the cupboard below. It’ll have to do, though, as long as there’s less than 40cm of water indoors – or any electricity, for that matter.

1pm: Chart Korbjitti just called: when I’m fed up being stranded, I can always go to his place in the hills. I wonder how many dozen drowning souls I’d find there. Deprived of FIP for some reason (last night Jazz à FIP was okay for the ten minutes I put it on), I go for Soma’s Groove Salad. Ground temperature: 31°C and in the occasional breeze by the mezzanine window I’m sweating nicely while typing some mail.

1:30pm: Daughter calls for the latest disaster report from daddy as, standing in fourteen centimetres of water, he puts some food together for a Spanish-like merienda.

4:15pm: I’ve taken time out to the cider rules side and had a last good laugh over the fulsome blessings of curried fish balls. I won’t write a critic of that novel, read in fits and starts over more than a year, except to say that throughout I wondered at the absence of any physical description of Homer Wells apart from a skimpy ‘round face and big eyes’ somewhere – and had to wait for three descriptive lines, but as transmogrified Dr Stone, on page 709, ten pages from the end. How did I manage to have a definite mental image of the fellow?

Now it’s 33°C up here and I need a glass of water from down there. Did I just say water?
Oh, bother.

4:35pm: Only 9cm left! Another false hope?


7:55–8:15pm: A downpour, 3.4 on the tropical scale.

8:30pm: 21cm of water downstairs when I go down to cook the two spuds I’ve got left.

8:55pm: 25cm. This, by the way, means one metre out there in the lane.

9:25pm: 23cm. I turn on the water pump I switched off in late morning after another visit by the resident ghost. It goes on and on while I wash dishes. When I realise the valiant pump is two-third submerged, I switch it off for good: I don’t want to risk electrocution or blackout. I can bathe at the back of the house where the drinking water jar is still half full. But then there’s the little problem of piss and shit…

10:50pm: 22.5cm.



In English, Reading matters on 05/10/2011 at 12:36 pm


Don’t ask me how it happened, but last week I bought two novels and – John Irving’s still unfinished, mea culpa – gulped one down right away, I who was confessing here the other day I haven’t read English novels in years.

That novel is Ian McEwan’s latest, Solar: a wonderful romp through the English language at its finest – McEwan writes as succulently well as John Updike did – for a disjointed novel of ideas and satire on the hottest topic of the times, global warming, whose whimsical plot turns find their coherence in the degeneration of its antihero, one of the most despicable I’ve ever come across in modern fiction, a larger-than-life character in the fashion of Henderson the Rain King or Sabbath or Martin Amis’s fictional monsters, but a thousand times more toxic: Nobel Prize-winning physicist Michael Beard who, from 2000 to 2005 to 2009, will go from fat to obese to porcine, from anhedonia to carcinoma, from wives and flings to flings and wife-with-child, from England to the North Pole to New Mexico, from has-been status to fraudulent saviour of mankind, while remaining a monster of overconsumption, greed and hypocrisy, a philanderer, a liar and a thief, self-centered and callous beyond belief: in other words, as a negative replica to Saturday’s brilliant neurosurgeon Henry Perowne; another, here black-on-white embodiment of the times we live in, allowing our author to wax satiric on a huge spectrum of phobias: the Blair government, George W, opportunistic second-rate scientists and academics, modern art circles, feminist viragoes, environmentalists, the mass media – the whole caboodle. Everything here is solidly grounded in scientific research regurgitated in perfectly pitched lectures or sallies that will either worry, bamboozle or bore you; and everything here is highly improbable, starting with being crowned with a Nobel prize in your early thirties; or with the same, fiftyish man in his adipose state being able to attract so many broads; or getting away with disguising as murder an accidental death; or not having his pecker actually frozen off when he pees in –26oC open country; and so on.

Mind you, it’s fun, with satire stretching to farce to gallows humour (“Here’s the good news. The UN estimates that already a third of a million people a year are dying from climate change. … Toby, listen. We’re facing a catastrophe. Relax.”). It’s a measure of the author’s storytelling genius that by the end, as dramatic tension builds up to fever pitch, I found myself rooting for such a loathsome character and hoping his artificial photosynthesis experiment would indeed succeed and save the world.

But all in all this novel is too much of an assembly of parts, a collection of stories, too much predicated on dichotomy and paradox, and – like Saturday – too preoccupied with petty contemporary quarrels beyond real planetary concerns to ever rank among the classics or even alongside McEwan’s best, Atonement and Chesil Beach.

The other book I bought is Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Getting into this latest novel last night I found myself thrown back to Irving’s prose level – and might as well get on with the last hundred-odd pages of The Cider House Rules, though I must say on reflection I don’t quite like them, apples.

A confession

In English on 10/09/2011 at 8:49 pm


Sometimes I wonder what’s happened to me: I don’t read for pleasure anymore.
The evidence struck me this week when I spent almost two entire days … reading for pleasure and realised I hadn’t done so in a couple of years.

The proof of that has been staring me in the face, so to speak, for almost as long: the last time I bought a novel in English, come to think of it, was in June last year: John Irving’s The Cider House Rules. It’s 720 pages long. I’m on page 554.
There was a time when, boning up on world literature at its best, I’d buy a dozen novels at a time every month or so – second-hand, from a friendly Bang Lamphoo bookshop. When I started this blog, I thought a good chunk of the copy would be reviews of such books. Instead…

There are many reasons for this state of affairs, but they boil down to one: I’ve become addicted to Hollywood movies.
Since I got that state-of-the-mart TV set and its zillion channels, I’ve been spending hours every night zapping instead of flipping through pages.
(In the daytime, I’m fully booked and still read copiously, but in Thai, to dig out fictional gems for my trade.)
It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that the time I’ve spent going through those 554 pages coincides with the duration of television broadcasting failures over the past fourteen months: whenever there’s a storm outside, the TV has a tendency to sulk or mourn, sometimes for hours on end; internet seizures care of TOT don’t help either.

Of course I’m not proud of myself watching trash movies when I could read good books. It’s like a disavowal of what I’ve held dear all my life: how can I rail against bad prose when I lap up celluloid trash I’d be ashamed to see in print? If only Arte reached this land at decent hours or the world’s best movies were available at a click of the remote, I wouldn’t feel so shitty.
But I understand kids better these days, and have grown very much sceptic about attempts by old men to have them drop e-games and e-chats and read books instead: clearly, a page is turned, to digital.

As for that book I read for pleasure, well, it wasn’t that much different from what Hollywood offers at its best, except it was in French and written by someone I’ve known and met less than a dozen times over the past forty years: à la Tom Wolfe, à la Truman Capote, a blow-by-blow account of an abduction in real life that went tragically wrong. It’s an exhilarating if depressing read that put me up-to-date on the parley state of French society in its margins and allowed me to brush up on verlan. It’ll make a fabulous movie.
Which reminds me: what’s on tonight?

Last light in Twisted River

In English, Reading matters on 17/08/2010 at 8:44 pm


I’ve been a lifelong fan of John Irving ever since The World According to Garp put him on the world literary map in 1978. Since then, I’ve read all of his later novels, except The Cider House Rules (1985), which many consider his best or at least on a par with Garp and A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989), my favourite. Few notable American writers make you laugh out loud as a matter of routine, and of those that do fewer still have his reach and his punch. That his delightful farcical sequences and satirical shafts hovering between the macabre and the impish come along too many lengthy stretches of workaday prose can be excused in his best works as they are in, say, Moby Dick, given his grandness of purpose and scope, as well as the obvious tenderness he feels and makes us feel for his characters and mankind in general. Irving is a writer out of the Sinclair Lewis mould, yet his Babbitts have a sense of humour.

But then…

After Owen Meany came, at three to five years intervals, A Son of the Circus, A Widow for One Year, The Fourth Hand, Until I find You, and now Last Night in Twisted River, and taken together it should be obvious from these novels that Irving’s powers to entertain are on the wane and he is reduced to imitating himself and posturing in the manner of a post-modernism he doesn’t quite understand.
A Son of the Circus was as powerful a settling of scores with his father as John Le Carré’s Perfect Spy was with his own – the latter by far the better read, being undiluted and better focused.
As if that wasn’t enough, twelve years later the mammoth Until I find You was a reworking of the father-son attraction-repulsion act. I remember plodding through hundreds and then hundred more pages asking myself where all the fun had gone and what the point of it was, but also of my delight and admiration when the second part of the book turned the plot inside out like a glove, a rare accomplishment outside of whodunits: that piece of legerdemain was deft, was brilliant, even if the ‘main’ in question went heavy with the salt.

As for the Widow and Fourth Hand, well, I just had to go back to the blurbs to remember what they were all about.

And now Twisted River, meandering over 568 pages in the Black Swan paperback I bought.
What a bore of a book!
I’m on page 233 and doubt I can go through with the ‘stately, sophisticated rumination on the nature of storytelling – and love’ the authoritative literary magazine Marie Claire assures us it is. (Talk about killer references in bookdom.)
It takes over a hundred pages for the plot to begin to firm up and move, the first fifty painstakingly telling us all we surely don’t need to know about the obsolescent business of a small logging community in Coos County, New Hampshire, with its collection of crippled or otherwise impaired oddballs with complicated Italian names (the roots and variations of which are fussily explained for local flavour), whose cousins or twins people previous books by the same pen or have sauntered over from other people’s yarns: thus, larger-than-life Ketchum, a cross between Sabbath and Henderson dipped in ketchup when he was small. Once the plot is afloat, it drifts away with the incoherence of a log caught in sluggish rapids, before ‘stately rumination’ raises its ugly head, or should I say dentures.
To compound the pain, the book was shoddily proofread, if at all: from page 70 to page 215, I noticed no fewer than eleven misprints or punctuation lapses.
Reading on, I’ve had the same feeling as when watching a Cassius Clay drifting past his Muhammad Ali phase into Parkinson’s. The belaboured wisdom of storytelling, the posturing, the creaking at the joints, are disheartening. Clearly, that Last night is the last light in the fecund twisted river of the writer that was.

A dud and the real thing

In English, Reading matters on 21/06/2010 at 2:58 pm

The previous posting amply shows that time hangs heavy on my hands these days, as heavy as when women, having delivered twins, feel light in the gut and the head, I guess. After weeks of nursing half a million words while Bangkok bled and burnt, I’m left with nothing to do but bide my time for permission to publish and what have you, go through a pile of long neglected literary magazines and other reading material, and try to figure out what to do next beyond the odd short story translation and a bit of dusting to lose weight.

Yes, I know, I did treat myself on my birthday to last night in twisted river and The Museum of Innocence, but not without guilt: somehow, Roberto Bolaño’s 898-page-long 2666 is still waiting for me to read the last one hundred pages, three months after I started reading.

Instead, I chose to spend most of my birthday anniversary on a Thai novel. A couple of weeks earlier, through a third person, the author of Dao Din (Star on Earth) contacted me to ask if I’d be willing to translate it into English. Since it was a novelised biography of legendary movie star Mitr Chaibancha, whom everybody knows died at 36 by falling from a helicopter while filming in Pattaya, I said I’d read it to assess whether it was worth translating. SOP.
The author, Inkhasak, sent me the book with a written note in Thai to the effect that he had spent twenty years gathering information to write that book, which came out last year.
The novel opens on a whole range of Mitr’s relatives learning of his death as they attend a joyous ceremony at the local wat.
It didn’t take me long (well, too long, actually) to figure out that this was literary and biographical trash: a string of clichés and repetitions, weather reports, gooey fine sentiments all over the page, snatches of leaden or implausible dialogue, corny premonitions, unhappy phrasings (‘one of the raspier sounds ever seen’ or some such) and, though I can’t swear to it as I never finished the book, a few liberties taken with Mitr Chaibancha’s biography as can be read on Wikipedia.
Much of this assessment I emailed the author, providing examples, summarising it with ‘I don’t think this work deserves to be translated at all; what it deserves is proper editing in Thai to begin with,’ and actually reining in my anger, knowing all too well that such a book is beyond ‘proper editing’ anyway, the author’s dedication is his saving grace, and it isn’t quite his fault anyway but more that of his culture.
I have no idea whether that novel has sold well, although I suspect it has, would it only be because the author deems it worthy of an international readership, but I know that the market is flooded with such sloppy works that thrive on and perpetuate mediocrity. If anything, such a book should be used in writing classes as practical evidence on how not to write a novel, or a biography for that matter.

Luckily for me, I spent the next day and then the next in literary bliss, going through Ezra Erker’s month-old offering, a ‘double album’ [?] of short stories or should I say vignettes entitled Blue Notes which he makes the beginner’s mistake of formatting throughout, with a green picture of an aquarium as a bonus (Rule number one in publishing: present your submissions unformatted).
Distributed over six headings, seventy-two small pieces (from a few hundred to at most two thousand five hundred words each and usually less than a thousand) that run from fable to parable, from profound musings to childish pranks, variously anchored in the past, present or future or all three at once, with historical, political, scientific or science fictional backgrounds in a great variety of countries, manage to create, through their multifaceted style, unusual angles and very variety a world of their own, distinctly Erkerian – the true mark of a writer, whether published and famous or ignored or, as is yet Ezra Erker’s case, still to be discovered.
Among the shortest pieces, especially in the first sections, quite a few left me puzzled or indifferent, and I’d be tempted to tell the author to ‘reconsider’ their presence there, but I know how headstrong he can be. Ditto for ‘Visitors’ in the last section. One I would definitely tell him to discard: ‘Requiem’, with or without apologies to Emily Dickinson – it’s the only piece I just couldn’t read through: sounds too much like a bock-a-da-bock player practising his scales on the church organ. And there is much of the ‘practising scales’ aspect in this collection that must have been penned over years and occasionally makes you think of kindred writers with household names.
The two sections titled ‘Improvisations on love’ and ‘Meditations on mortality’ seem to me the most coherent, fluid and spellbinding. Within the latter, ‘In memory of Laurie’ and ‘The return’ really moved me. Earlier, I also liked the lovely ‘Melampus’ tale (‘Farmers know that geese don’t take to shrimp…’), and ‘The yellow monster’, 555 words long, is close to perfection: not one word de trop; strong theme; implacable treatment, cledge and all. (Yes, I too had to look the word up.)
Some pieces end dramatically, others with a whimper, but Erker definitely knows how to hook you from line one. At random: ‘Since the bite, it courses through my veins.’ – ‘He woke to find himself sprouting.’ – ‘This guy walks into a bar.’ – ‘She needed to get rid of things, so she started with her clothes.’ And so on.

To add to my bliss, my lawyer daughter celebrated my birthday with me with a home-delivered ham-and-mushroom pizza, her treat. That we did so one day late was poetic justice: all these years, her own birthday would fall without fail in the middle of her end-of-term exams and we’d celebrate it one or two days later or on the following weekend. She’s free of exams now but on my birthday those every-other-day evening courses, you see…

Blood, sweat and eggs

In English on 20/06/2010 at 8:21 pm


It was a perfect birthday celebration day. Well, almost.
As I’m about to go to the supermarket to buy fresh bread and replenish the fridge, the food van comes by. Plumpish Khun Lek sits in her cage of vegetables, eggs and meat while rotund husband mans the wheel and calls the shots over a loud speaker which drives neighbouring dogs into a frenzy.
‘How come you’re wearing two layers in this heat?’ says Lek, referring to my t-shirt and shirt. She doesn’t know that, when out and about, I live by the Touareg principle: in heat, cover your skin and hide your sweat.
‘I’m out to celebrate my birthday,’ I volunteer.
‘How many years would that be?’ Lek asks at once, cutely using the word kuap instead of pee for ‘years’, as you do only with children under twelve.
‘Six and five,’ I answer.
The pro forma compliment follows.
I pay for a couple of spuds,  four tomatoes, one onion, two sorts of string beans, a fistful of garlic and ten eggs, take them back home and leave them on the terrace rocking chair – and then out again for bread, milk, yoghurt, coffee, cold cuts and, as a treat, the latest John Irving and the latest Orhan Pamuk.
When I’m home again and feed fridge and cupboard, I find one egg is broken.

Waking up of a morning, I see a baht-sized bloodspot on the blanket covering my other rocking chair, in front of the TV set. And there is blood, not on every bracelet, but on last night’s sarong in two places. I tell myself, How unseemly to have menses at sixty-five, and you a man! Then I remember: last night, after crouching to check something on the TV tablet I reared up incautiously, lost balance and the vicinity of my coccyx smashed into a protruding arm of the rocking chair. It did hurt, but I just sank into the chair and went on watching TV. Blood seeped through. Yes, indeed, that back-of-beyond spot is still sore. Now, Lady Macbeth, how does one remove bloodstains from fabric?

I bleed easily, it seems. I keep bumping into things, however few I surround myself with, and it almost unfailingly draws blood.
Scratches and rashes are par for the course whenever I give my creepers a haircut, three to six times a year. The iron fence with its sharp hooks may or may not have kept burglars away, but it definitely gashes my arms every chance it gets.
Last month, when that young fellow went up the heavy folding ladder I held for him to replace the light socket in the living room, as the middle lock on his side wasn’t properly locked, on his second step up the ladder collapsed and kicked both him and me in the shin as he jumped off, shocked. He made a song and dance about it but his shin was hardly bruised. Mine bled. And the parquet got scratched into the bargain.
Last October in Provence, the cold made my nose bleed, and chapped my lips.
Ages ago, as I sped down the narrow lane crossing the slum by the river, the trash collector swerved his trolley in such a way that a rod protruding sideways skewered my right thigh. A river ran down it while the dear old man scooted, head hung. I had to discard the trousers. The inch-long scar is still with me.