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‘Apple and Knife’ by Intan Paramaditha ***

The stories in Apple and Knife, the first English collection of award-winning Indonesian author Intan Paramaditha’s work have been drawn from two of her books, and are translated by Stephen J. Epstein.  Paramaditha’s tales are inspired by fairytales, mythological stories, and horror, and this collection promises its readers an ‘unsettling ride that swerves into the supernatural to explore the dangers and power of occupying a female body in today’s world.’  Its blurb also claims that the collection ‘is subversive feminist horror at its best, where men and women alike are arbiters of fear, and where revenge is sometimes sweetest when delivered from the grave.’

9781787301160Apple and Knife is a slim collection of thirteen stories, many of which have quite beguiling titles; ‘The Blind Woman Without a Toe’, ‘Scream in a Bottle’, and ‘A Single Firefly, a Thousand Rats’ particularly caught my eye.  Australian author Emily Bitto writes that the stories in Apple and Knife ‘are raw, fun, excessive, and told with a wink, but they are underlaid with an unsettling awareness of the human fate of “disobedient women”.’

As one would expect, given Bitto’s comments, the collection launches straight into the darker side of life.  The first story, ‘The Blind Woman Without a Toe’, is a retelling of Cinderella (renamed Sindelerat), which is told from the perspective of one of her sisters.  In the story, the narrator recounts, rather graphically, how she became blind to a young child companion: ‘My eyes were pecked out by a bird.  They say it was a dove from heaven, but it was actually a black crow straight out of hell.  I screamed.  I begged it to stop.  But my shrieks were drowned out by its caws.  It got to the point that you could no longer tell what was flowing, tears or blood.  The crow only heeded its owner and she wasn’t satisfied until my eyes were hollow sockets.’

The settings of the stories in Apple and Knife, which range from corporate boardrooms to shanty towns, ‘reveal a soupy otherworld stewing just beneath the surface.’  The majority of the stories are set in Indonesia, but there are a couple which do not explicitly mention their placement, or which are set elsewhere.  Each of the characters, regardless of where they have been placed geographically, is undergoing a crisis or upheaval of some kind, and this becomes the common thread which acts as a backbone for the collection.  The characters in Apple and Knife are all markedly different.  We meet, variously, a woman who is being kept by her husband in a grand house; ‘the most famous courtesan in Esna’; a young woman who interviews a ‘Sumarni’, or witch; and a ‘devil woman’ who pays a man to act out her sexual fantasies.

Whilst some of the stories in this collection did not appeal to me on a personal level, or had rather unsatisfactory endings, I found that others had a real power to them.  They subvert expectation, and turn things on their heads.  Many of the tales take quite surprising turns, and Paramaditha seems to enjoy playing with the expectations which she assumes the reader has.  The stories are sensual, but not in a pleasant way; rather, they come across as an assault upon the senses. One of the elements which I found most interesting in Apple and Knife is the focus which Paramaditha places upon the physical body and its degradation.

I was impressed by Paramaditha’s writing, and the layering effect which she creates in many of her stories.  Her rich descriptions help to achieve this.  In ‘Scream in a Bottle’, for instance, she writes: ‘Rain falls in the yard, soaking the earth.  Not a downpour, but slow, drop by drop.  A long, soft tone, like a bow sliding against a violin string.’  The author is perceptive and descriptive, particularly when it comes to her depictions of characters.  In ‘Beauty and the Seventh Dwarf’, she writes: ‘I pieced together her story based on information that emerged at random, so the tale was incomplete, unsatisfactory.  It didn’t explain the enigma of her hideousness.  Waiting while she bathed one night, I hunted around for further clues.  Her room contained a mirror and a dresser…  Of course she didn’t need beauty products, nothing would redeem her looks. Even the mirror’s presence was odd.  Why would someone with such a grotesque face want to gaze at herself?’

Regardless of the things which I did not like in this collection, or which felt rather repetitive, it is undeniably wonderful that Indonesian literature is being championed at last.  Apple and Knife was fascinating to read, suffused as it is with so much darkness, and a lot of Indonesian folklore and cultural details, which I was unfamiliar with.  Whilst many of the stories are contemporary, I liked the use of historical fiction in ‘Kuchuk Hanem’, which has a representation of French author Gustave Flaubert within it.  The dark humour was also welcome, and worked well with Paramaditha’s storylines, which were, frankly, sometimes quite bizarre.

On the whole, Apple and Knife presents an interesting and multilayered picture of a very diverse nation; there is so much going on here, and a lot of themes have been addressed. The magical realism which is sometimes inserted does work well on the whole, although I found a couple of instances of this unnecessary or somewhat jarring.  Overall, though, the fantastical elements do add an extra layer of interest to the stories.  The majority are quite bewitching.

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Reading the World: Asia (Part Two)

The second part of our reading adventure around Asia!  Again, I must apologise for the lack of diversity and overrepresentation of Japan overall; I will work on my Asian reading in future, and that is a promise.

97800992864311. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie (China)
‘1971: Mao’s cultural Revolution is at its peak. Two sons of doctors, sent to ‘re-education’ camps, forced to carry buckets of excrement up and down mountain paths, have only their sense of humour to keep them going. Although the attractive daughter of the local tailor also helps to distract them from the task at hand. The boys’ true re-education starts, however, when they discover a hidden suitcase packed with the great Western novels of the nineteenth century. Their lives are transformed. And not only their lives: after listening to the stories of Balzac, the little seamstress will never be the same again.’

2. Geisha by Liza Dalby (Japan)
‘Liza Dalby, author of The Tale of Murasaki, is the only non-Japanese woman ever to have become a geisha. This is her unique insight into the extraordinary, closed world of the geisha, a world of grace, beauty and tradition that has long fascinated and enthralled the West. Taking us to the heart of a way of life normally hidden from the public gaze, Liza Dalby shows us the detailed reality that lies behind the bestselling Memoirs of a Geisha and opens our eyes to an ancient profession that continues to survive in today’s modern Japan.’

3. The Flamboya Tree: A Family’s Wartime Courage by Clara Olink Kelly (Indonesia)
‘When the Japanese invaded the beautiful Indonesian island of Java during the Second World War Clara Kelly was four years old. Her family was separated, her father sent to work on the Burma railway, and she together with her mother and her two brothers, one a six-week-old baby, was sent to a ‘women’s camp’. They were interned there until the end of the war. Clara’s descriptions of the appalling deprivations and impersonal brutality of the camp, easily recognisable as the same techniques used in the infamously cruel Japanes prisoner of war camps – standing in the baking heat for hours of ‘Tenko’ role-call, living on one cup of rice a day – are countered by the courage and resilience shown by all the internees, most poignantly her own mother.’

4. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri ((partially set in) India) 9780006551805
‘”When her grandmother learned of Ashima’s pregnancy, she was particularly thrilled at the prospect of naming the family’s first sahib. And so Ashima and Ashoke have agreed to put off the decision of what to name the baby until a letter comes…” For now, the label on his hospital cot reads simply BABY BOY GANGULI. But as time passes and still no letter arrives from India, American bureaucracy takes over and demands that ‘baby boy Ganguli’ be given a name. In a panic, his father decides to nickname him ‘Gogol’ – after his favourite writer. Brought up as an Indian in suburban America, Gogol Ganguli soon finds himself itching to cast off his awkward name, just as he longs to leave behind the inherited values of his Bengali parents. And so he sets off on his own path through life, a path strewn with conflicting loyalties, love and loss…Spanning three decades and crossing continents, Jhumpa Lahiri’s much-anticipated first novel is a triumph of humane story-telling. ‘

5. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (Afghanistan)
‘Afghanistan, 1975: Twelve-year-old Amir is desperate to win the local kite-fighting tournament and his loyal friend Hassan promises to help him. But neither of the boys can foresee what will happen to Hassan that afternoon, an event that is to shatter their lives. After the Russians invade and the family is forced to flee to America, Amir realises that one day he must return to Afghanistan under Taliban rule to find the one thing that his new world cannot grant him: redemption.’

97807475683396. Empress Orchid by Anchee Min (China)
‘To rescue her family from poverty and avoid marrying her slope-shouldered cousin, seventeen-year-old Orchid competes to be one of the Emperor’s wives. When she is chosen as a lower-ranking concubine she enters the erotically charged and ritualised Forbidden City. But beneath its immaculate facade lie whispers of murders and ghosts, and the thousands of concubines will stoop to any lengths to bear the Emperor’s son. Orchid trains herself in the art of pleasuring a man, bribes her way into the royal bed, and seduces the monarch, drawing the attention of dangerous foes. Little does she know that China will collapse around her, and that she will be its last Empress.’

7. Brick Lane by Monica Ali (Bangladesh, in part)
‘Still in her teenage years, Nazneen finds herself in an arranged marriage with a disappointed man who is twenty years older. Away from the mud and heat of her Bangladeshi village, home is now a cramped flat in a high-rise block in London’s East End. Nazneen knows not a word of English, and is forced to depend on her husband. But unlike him she is practical and wise, and befriends a fellow Asian girl Razia, who helps her understand the strange ways of her adopted new British home. Nazneen keeps in touch with her sister Hasina back in the village. But the rebellious Hasina has kicked against cultural tradition and run off in a ‘love marriage’ with the man of her dreams. When he suddenly turns violent, she is forced into the degrading job of garment girl in a cloth factory. Confined in her flat by tradition and family duty, Nazneen also sews furiously for a living, shut away with her buttons and linings – until the radical Karim steps unexpectedly into her life. On a background of racial conflict and tension, they embark on a love affair that forces Nazneen finally to take control of her fate. Strikingly imagined, gracious and funny, this novel is at once epic and intimate. Exploring the role of Fate in our lives – those who accept it; those who defy it – it traces the extraordinary transformation of an Asian girl, from cautious and shy to bold and dignified woman.’

8. Life of Pi by Yann Martel (India) 9780739377956
‘”The Jungle Book “meets “Not Wanted On the Voyage” in a triumph of storytelling and originality: a novel, as one character puts it, to make you believe in God. Piscine Molitor Patel, nicknamed Pi, lives in Pondicherry, India, where his family runs a zoo. Little Pi is a great reader. He devours books on Hinduism, Christianity and Islam, and to the surprise of his secular parents, becomes devoted to all three religions. When the parents decide to emigrate to Canada, the family boards a cargo ship with many of the animals that are going to new zoological homes in North America, and bravely sets sail for the New World. Alas, the ship sinks. A solitary lifeboat remains bobbing on the surface of the wild blue Pacific. In it are five survivors: Pi, a hyena, a zebra, an orang-utan and a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger. With intelligence, daring and inexpressible fear, Pi manages to keep his wits about him as the animals begin to assert their places in the foodchain; it is the tiger, Richard Parker, with whom he must develop an inviolable understanding. ‘

9. A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute (Malaya)
‘Jean Paget is just twenty years old and working in Malaya when the Japanese invasion begins. When she is captured she joins a group of other European women and children whom the Japanese force to march for miles through the jungle – an experience that leads to the deaths of many. Due to her courageous spirit and ability to speak Malay, Jean takes on the role of leader of the sorry gaggle of prisoners and many end up owing their lives to her indomitable spirit. While on the march, the group run into some Australian prisoners, one of whom, Joe Harman, helps them steal some food, and is horrifically punished by the Japanese as a result. After the war, Jean tracks Joe down in Australia and together they begin to dream of surmounting the past and transforming his one-horse outback town into a thriving community like Alice Springs.’

10. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan (China)
‘This novel, told from the viewpoints of four Chinese mothers and their four American-Chinese daughters, examines the nature of the mother-daughter relationship, and the problems of cultural identity the characters face.’

 

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