Day 1218: The Singapore Grip

Cover for The Singapore GripThe Singapore Grip is the third of J. G. Farrell’s Empire trilogy, which takes a sardonic look at various parts of the British Empire. The Siege of Krishnapur is set in the nineteenth century during the Sepoy rebellion. Troubles takes place in Ireland during the Troubles in the early 20th century. The Singapore Grip is set during the Japanese invasion of Malaya in World War II.

The novel begins in 1939. Walter Blackett is a powerful Singapore businessman whose sole concern is the profits of his company, Blackett and Webb. Despite the Allies’ need for rubber, Blackett is concerned with keeping the price up and spends his time fixing prices and manipulating the market.

His senior partner dies, and Walter awaits the arrival of Matthew Webb, his partner’s heir. Although Walter’s beautiful daughter, Joan, spends her time tormenting various young men, she readily agrees to help her father’s ambitions by marrying Matthew.

Matthew is a naive and feckless young man, whose ideals have been somewhat battered during his work for the League of Nations. Although he is chubby and unprepossessing, Joan makes a dead set for him, dismaying Ehrendorf, the previous favorite. But Matthew is more interested in Vera Chiang, a Eurasian girl who may be a prostitute or possibly a Communist or maybe neither.

This novel is peopled with Farrell’s usual peculiar characters, including a figure from¬†Troubles, Major Brendan Archer. As Singapore begins descending into chaos, the Major attempts to organize a volunteer fire department. But his efforts are hampered by a lack of interest, as the Singaporians concentrate on selling things and the Blacketts focus all their activities on a Jubilee celebration of the company.

Farrell’s cynical look at the last years of the British in Singapore is occasionally hilarious, with a dark and deadpan humor. It also contains much to consider, as various characters discuss the benefits of colonization (whether there are any), theories of commerce, and other ideas that obsess them.

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Day 1184: The Garden of Evening Mists

Cover for The Garden of Evening MistsBest of Five!
Yun Ling Teoh, a Malayan federal judge of Chinese descent, has decided to retire early. She has been diagnosed with a neurological ailment that will cause more and more frequent episodes of aphasia and will eventually destroy her language abilities. She decides to return to Yugiri, a Japanese garden in Malaya that she inherited from its creator, Aritomo.

On the advice of her friend Frederik, the owner of a nearby tea plantation, Yun Ling decides to record her memories. She begins in 1951, when she went to Aritomo to ask him to design a garden in memory of her sister, Yun Hong, who died in a Japanese labor camp during World War II. Yun Ling also was in the camp, and her hatred of the Japanese makes it difficult for her to ask for Aritomo’s help. But her sister loved Japanese gardens.

Aritomo refuses her request but makes her a different offer. If she will take on the job of apprentice, he will teach her enough to design her own garden. She decides to accept the offer, having quit her job as prosecutor.

It is a difficult time in Malaya. No sooner did the war end than the government began fighting Communist guerillas, who were attempted to take over the country. And Akitomo has his secrets. He came to Malaya before the war, having resigned as the Japanese emperor’s gardener, but Yun Ling occasionally hears that he played a role for Japan during the war. He had some kind of influence, because he saved his neighbors from the Japanese labor camps. Yun Ling, we find, has her own secrets.

The Garden of Evening Mists is the best kind of historical fiction, immersing me in its time and place while informing me of events I was formerly unaware of. I found it deeply interesting and affecting. The descriptions are delicate and evocative, and the characters feel real yet mysterious. This novel was part of both my Walter Scott Prize and Man Booker Prize projects, as well as the winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize. It is a powerful novel.

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Day 490: The Glass Palace

Cover for The Glass PalaceBest Book of the Week!
In the late 19th century, the kingdom of Burma was one of the wealthiest in southeast Asia. Its people were all literate, and no one in the country went hungry. Hundreds of thousands of Indians and people from other nearby countries traveled there to work on the waterways or the teak plantations.

In 1885, the Burmese government imposed a fine on a British trading company for avoiding taxes by under-reporting the amount of teak it was exporting. The British government used this incident as a pretext for invading the country and taking the royal family captive. King Thebaw and Queen Supalayat and their children, along with a few servants, were deported to India, where they were kept captive for the rest of the king’s life in a crumbling, poorly maintained house. Their personal possessions, including the king’s valuable jewelry collection, were confiscated and returned to England.

It is around this shameful incident that the beginning of The Glass Palace is constructed, an ambitious novel that tells the recent history of India and Burma/Myanmar through the stories of several related families. Rajkumar is a 10-year-old Indian orphan whose mother died in their attempt to reach Burma, and he is working at a small cooking stall near the palace when it is breached. He witnesses the removal of the queen and the princesses, and is struck by the beauty of Dolly, their young servant. Dolly is the only one of the lady’s maids who chooses to follow the royal family into exile.

Rajkumar goes to work for a Malayan businessman named Saya John Martins. With Saya John’s help and advice, Rajkumar eventually makes his fortune in the teak industry and finally travels to India to look for Dolly. She accepts his proposal and returns to Burma with her friend Uma, the recent widow of the first Indian Collector, the official in charge of the Burmese royal family.

These are just the bare bones of a dual story rich in characters and detail, on the one hand that of Rajkumar’s efforts to better himself, on the other hand that of the lives of Dolly and the royal family in exile. But this novel is not a love story, and that is just the beginning of this novel, which continues until the present. The novel follows the fates of Rajkumar and Dolly’s children and grandchildren and those of Uma’s nieces and nephews in India and Burma as the families intermarry with each other and with Saya John’s children. As we follow the fortunes of some family members in Burma and Malaya, other family members get involved in the Indian movement for independence from the British empire.

During the Japanese invasion and bombings of Burma and Malaya during World War II, various family members struggle to survive, one an Indian soldier in the British army, one a rubber plantation owner, one a photographer who disappears in Malaya. Rajkumar and Dolly and their daughter-in-law and grandchild are forced with thousands of other Indians to make the thousand-mile trek back to India.

Ghosh is interested in telling a complex story of culture and  history, so he keeps us at a remove from his characters, but that does not make the novel any less moving. The novel does an amazing job of exploring the roots of problems in Myanmar and India through its exposition of events and the varying points of view of its characters. This is a captivating and ambitious novel.