George Orwell, Burmese Days, Penguin. When Flory, a white timber merchant, befriends Indian Dr Veraswami, he defies the bigoted orthodoxy of the time. The doctor is in danger: U Po Kyin, a corrupt magistrate, is plotting his downfall. The only thing that can save him is membership of the all-white club.
Francois Bizot, The Gate, Knopf, 2003. French ethnologist Francois Bizot's The Gate offers a unique insight into the rise of the Khmer Rouge. In 1971 Bizot was studying ancient Buddhist traditions and living with his Khmer partner and daughter in a small village in the environs of the Angkor temple complex. The Khmer Rouge was fighting a guerilla war in rural Cambodia; during a routine visit to a nearby temple, Bizot and his two Khmer colleagues were captured by them and imprisoned deep in the jungle on suspicion of working for the CIA. On trial for his life, over the next three months Bizot developed a strong relationship with his captor, Comrade Douch, who would later become the Khmer Rouge's chief interrogator and commandant of the horrifying Tuol Sleng prison where thousands of captives were tortured prior to execution. The portrait Bizot gives of the young schoolteacher-turned revolutionary and their interaction is simultaneously fascinating and terrifying.
Finally freed after Douch had pleaded his case with the leadership, Bizot became the only Western captive of the Khmer Rouge ever to be released alive, but his story does not end there. On his return to Phnom Penh, due to his fluency in Khmer, he was appointed interpreter between the occupying forces and the remaining western nationals holed up in the French embassy. As the interlocutor at the eponymous gate, he relates with dreadful resignation the moment when the Khmer nationals in the compound were ordered out by the Khmer Rouge forces for "resettlement."
Bizot's is a touching and gripping account of one of the darkest moments in modern history and it is told with a unique voice. As a Cambodian resident, a lover of Cambodia and a fluent Khmer speaker, Bizot shows an understanding of the prevailing mood in the country that other Western commentators have failed to capture effectively, while as a Western academic he is able to see the forces at work and how Cambodia fits into the bigger picture of South East Asian conflict. What emerges is a tale of a land plunged into insanity and Bizot tells it like a eulogy for a dead friend and a confrontation of old demons. The Gate is a stunning book and a must for anyone interested in this grim period of Asian history. --Duncan Thomson
Jon Swain, River of Time St. Martin's Press, 1995
Jon Swain's book is a wonderful memoir of Indochina, expressing beautifully the powerful, inexplicable hold that Asia holds for those who love her. Swain was one of the few Western journalists who remained in Phnom Penh as the city fell to the Khmer Rouge. His descriptions of the siege and its immediate aftermath are terrifying and haunting.
Vicki Baum. A Tale from Bali. Oxford, 1973. A free rendering account of the Dutch intervention in the island’s affairs following the alleged looting of the wreck of a Chinese ship in the early 20th century. Written from the Balinese point of view, it is a vivid portrayal of the character of the Balinese, their customs and way of life.
Miguel Covarrubias. Bali. Oxford, 1972. First published in 1937, Bali is a classic on life, art, customs and culture on the island of Bali. Written by Mexican painter and student of anthropology, Covarrubias, it offers a glimpse into the spirit of the dance, theater, music, decorative arts, and pastimes of Bali as well as religion, sexual customs, family life and economic and political organization.
C J Koch, The Year of Living Dangerously. St Martins Press, 1978. In 1965, Indonesia’s beauty conceals an atmosphere of tension and unease as Sukarno placates his impoverished subjects by declaring his love for them and threatening war against the Western world. As Java’s violent spirit erupts, a group of Western newsmen take refuge from the seething streets of Jakarta and strike up unlikely friendships against the background of a nation in crisis.
Mochtar Lubis. A Road with No End. Hutchinson, 1968 (Graham Brash, 1982) Conceived during a period of detention in Madiun, Java, and the story is set between the re-occupation of Indonesia by the Dutch in 1946 and the aegis of the British. The central figure is Isa, a school teacher, who has suffered the hardships of the Japanese occupation and is now baffled by the confusion and unsettlement of the British interregnum as the Dutch struggle to gain control of their former colony. In contrast is the spirited revolutionary Hazil, who can speak of his ideals with fluency and conviction. The ill assorted pair is brought together by music, and especially the violin which was a popular instrument from the period of the Portuguese influence in the 16th Century. Between them is Isa’s wife, Fatima. Isa is a man beset by fear, fear of violence and this is the source of his impotence. He does not join the revolution because of his fear of making decisions and not out of patriotism. This non-decision sets him at the beginning of a road with no end -not leading to heroic deeds but to a coming to terms with him, a learning to live with fear, his besetting weakness. The road also represents his psychological journey to the recovery of his virility. In this Isa is a symbol of Indonesia unable to mobilize its energies, unable to activate the social and moral strength of thousands of little people and the pursuit of human happiness.
Mochtar Lubis. Twilight in Djakarta. Vanguard, 1963. In the dark and swirling currents of Jakarta, the tranquil past of colonization and the unformed future of independence live together in terrible chaos. Out of this Mochtar Lubis, one of Indonesia’s foremost authors weaves a classic tale that is frank, scornful and compassionate. It is the story of the return of a young Indonesian diplomat to his homeland where he is caught up in the world of undisciplined power politics and corrosive immorality. He sees for the first time that those in high places including his father are rotten with corruption, the poor are degraded beyond debasement, activists and intellectuals unobtrusively pursue lofty goals, and the underground world teems with criminals and prostitutes. (For years Lubis was kept under house arrest as well as imprisoned without trial for his editorials criticizing the government and army.)
Colin McPhee. A House in Bali. Oxford, 1979. A young American composer moves to Bali after hearing records of Balinese gamelan music. This is a sympathetic and often amusing account of his stay in Bali and his involvement in Balinese society. From McPhee’s narrative, the reader gets an overall impression of life on the island before WWII.
Pramoedya Ananta Toer, This Earth of Mankind. Penguin, 1975. Indonesia’s epic storyteller is Pramoedya Ananta Toer who was imprisoned by the Dutch as a propagandist during the revolution of the 1940s and later imprisoned for 14 years after a mob stormed his house and a government truck carried away his library following a coup in 1965. This book, part of an epic quartet, reaches beyond contemporary politics to touch more universal human concerns: the struggle against oppression and ignorance. An evocative story of remarkable characters caught in the cultural whirlpool that was the Dutch East Indies of the 1890s. Minke, an aspiring Javanese writer, finds a new love—the exquisite but fragile mixed blood girl Annelies and a new teacher—her mother, the charismatic native concubine Nyai Ontosoroh. With them he learns more profoundly of the ideas and values of Europeans and of his own dispirited people and with these women he must confront the prejudice and power that threatens to overwhelm them all.
Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Child of All Nations. Penguin, 1984. The second novel in which Minke, a young Javanese and one of the first to receive a European education, struggles to understand his divided world and of people’s emergence from colonial domination.
Pramoedya Ananta Toer, The Girl from the Coast. Select Books, 1991. A 14 year old village girl’s arranged marriage to a Javanese aristocrat marks the beginning of her lonely and painful path to maturity. As she adopts the ways of the aristocracy she realizes aristocrats are just as impoverished, oppressed, and crass as commoners.
Shahnon Ahmad. No Harvest but a Thorn. Oxford, 1972. A contemporary novel from an important Malaysian author who tells the story of an inarticulate peasant world that is little known and hardly written about. This is a depiction of man’s eternal struggle for survival against forces of nature. Lahuma’s only assets are a piece of land, his four limbs, a wife and seven children –all girls. The struggle is unending, the rewards skimpy and faith in God is his only source of strength and solace.
Anthony Burgess, The Malayan Trilogy. Penguin, 1972. This famous trilogy wittily dissects the racial and social prejudices of post war Malaya during the chaotic upheaval of independence. Through a succession of splendidly colorful characters he delineates the conflict and confusion arising from the almost enforced mingling of cultures.
Henri Fauconnier, The Soul of Malaya. Oxford University Press, 1965. First published in English in 1931, this autobiographical novel is written by a rubber planter in British Malaya in the 1920s. The jungle predominates throughout the book, but includes accounts of life on a rubber estate peopled with Tamils, French, English and other characters. As the story progresses, the focus is on two Malay brothers, their charm and superstition, and the relationship that develops between them, the narrator and the rubber planter before tragedy strikes.
James Kirkup. Tropic Temper: A Memoir of Malaya. Collins, 1963. Kirkup lived in Malaya for a year while teaching at the University of Kuala Lumpur. When he arrived he was depressed and disappointed, but as time went on and he learned more about the country and the three races—Malays, Chinese and Indians—who live there, his appreciation of it and affection for them grew. The evolution of his feelings and the development of his understanding of Malaya are vividly impressive as the descriptions of the landscape, the encounters with individuals, the information about places, festivals, food and religions.
John Slimming. Temiar Jungle: A Malayan Journey. John Murray, 1958. This is a true account of a journey through a hilly jungle area of Malaya while the author was working as an Assistant Protector of Aborigines. The aboriginal Temiar are semi-nomadic primitive people who live in the jungle of Kelantan, practice shifting cultivation, live on the land and hunt and trap animals and wild game. Their existence is becoming affected by the impact of civilization and the Communist guerilla warfare going on in the jungle during the Emergency. As Slimming surveys the Temiar communities to determine the acreage under cultivation, he stays in Temiar longhouses, shares their food and gains their confidence in an effort to help safeguard their welfare.
John Slimming. The Pepper Garden. Lipincott, 1968. Set in the mountains and jungle slopes of Malaya and Sarawak, The Pepper Garden is told in frames of memory by Rodway, a rubber planter whose world is torn apart with the Japanese invasion of Malaya in 1941 and later through the outbreak of Chinese communist terrorism. The story reveals the heart and mind of a man who, when the chips are down, again may stand up and give battle.
Han Suyin, And the Rain My Drink, Jonathan Cape, 1956 (The Emergency Period) With great feeling the author writes about the intertwining lives of many people caught up in the clash of powerful forces—dogged, downtrodden Chinese rubber tappers, slim Malay women and a pretty girl called Small Cloud, for whom betrayal has become a way of life.—the stiff, aloof world of British administrators and their ‘mems’.
Agnes Newton Keith, Land Below the Wind, Little Brown, 1939. Agnes Keith's Land Below The Wind was written during an era when Sabah was known as North Borneo, and when life was very much different from todays. Reprinted many times, this classic of Agnes Keith's observations and reflections of the time is a true-to-life record of society and culture then and of the captivating natural beauty of Sabah. Today, Sabah continues to be known as the "land below the wind", a phrase used by seafarers in the past to describe all the lands south of the typhoon belt, but which Agnes effectively reserved for Sabah through her book.
Agnes Newton Keith, Three Came Home, Little Brown, 1947. It is World War II. Journey into the lives of a lady, her husband and son during the occupation of the Japanese in Borneo. A woman tells a story depicting the life during troubled times. This book is a follow up to her 1939 Atlantic Monthly Non-Fiction Prize Contest award winning book, Land Below the Wind.
Agnes Newton Keith, White Man Returns. Little Brown, 1951. The family returns to Borneo in the post-war period.
Cecilia Manguerra Brainard, When the Rainbow Goddess Wept , University of Michigan, 1999
Yvonne Macaraig is an exuberant and mischievous nine-year-old when the Japanese invade her Philippine homeland in 1941, and so she begins her grim story of endurance and survival with a spirit of adventure and optimism. Her father, Nando, an American-trained engineer who's invaluable to the guerrilla movement, is often called away as Yvonne, her mother and a small family entourage flees toward presumed safety ever deeper in the jungle. Yvonne witnesses scenes of incredible carnage and silently notes the slow decline in her mother's health, but her spirits are buoyed by the Philippine folktales narrated to her by the family cook. These myths and legends, violent and colorful, extol the gallantry of ancient warrior kings or show the triumph of love and valor over subjugation. In simple yet deeply moving prose, Brainard's first novel presents similar acts of monumental courage: a doctor's sacrifice in the jungle; quiet defiance against terrorist threats. Gradually, Nando and his companions become aware that the U.S. is capable of betraying them-and that Philippine independence is a necessity. The strengthening of the national spirit; the loss of innocence in two generations-these themes are explored by the author, who was born in the Philippines, with persuasive conviction and stark realism.
F. Sionil Jose, Dusk : A Novel, Modern Library, 1998
This rich historical novel takes place at the end of the 19th century as the Filipinos, with the aid of the Americans, finally expelled the Spanish after three centuries of often brutal rule. Major themes are on display here--war and peace; rich versus poor; tyranny versus freedom--all passionately presented within the context of one man and his family. After being unjustly dismissed from the seminary by a corrupt priest and then suffering the death of his brother at the hands of Spanish authorities, Istak Samson is forced to flee from increasing oppression and lead his family on a journey for a new home. This harsh quest from the coast to the central plains eventually leads Samson to find love, peace, and relative prosperity, as well as provide a device for José to vividly describe the beauty and complexity of his homeland and to elaborate on the cultural effects of Spanish occupation. The joy Samson finds, like Philippine independence, is short-lived, as the Filipinos soon engage in a bloody conflict with the Americans, who have substituted Spanish imperialism with their own. Unable to reconcile his pacifist nature with his sense of duty to his country, Samson reluctantly joins the rebel forces in their battle to reassert their freedom. After setting the stage for tragedy, José does not follow an easy route to a happy ending but instead builds to a climax that is moving, if not unexpected. In telling his epic tale from the perspective of a common peasant, José lends a powerful voice to a people long trapped in the midst of historical upheaval
Tess Uriza Holthe, When the Elephants Dance, Penguin, reissue, 2003
Tess Uriza Holthe writes with a mixture of metaphor and fact, a combination of the supernatural and the all-too-real. When the Elephants Dance opens, in fact, with an apposite metaphor for a horrible reality: "Papa explains the war like this: 'When the elephants dance, the chickens must be careful.'" The elephants in question are the Americans and the Japanese, fighting for possession of the Philippines. The chickens are, of course, the ordinary Filipinos. Three of these "chickens" by turns tell us the story of the Japanese occupation as a small neighborhood near Manila literally goes underground, hiding in the cellar and swapping stories. Holthe takes her onus as a seminal Filipino voice seriously; she sometimes seems determined to cram every bit of tradition, history, and myth into her novel, to the detriment of the plot's propulsion. But readers who stay with her will be rewarded with an extraordinary display of historical color, and will certainly root for her three narrators
Chart Korpjitti's The Judgement, Thai Modern Classics, 1995. In a famous Buddhist parable, a man who had always observed the five precepts of the lay Buddhist is tempted one day to break the fifth, which prohibits the consumption of intoxicating liquors. In his drunkenness he succeeds in breaking the other four precepts. The parable is intended to show that the fifth precept is the most important because drunkenness destroys the mindfulness that is the means and end of Buddhist practice. The novel The Judgement by Thai writer Chart Korpjitti is a variation on this parable, but it is much more than that. It is also a meditation on how the vicious and powerful corrupt the virtuous and the weak. Specifically it shows how this happens in Thailand, where power and appearances, not merit, often determine respectability. Like many Thai novels it presents a country quite different from the one found in tourist brochures, and one more akin to Thailand's grisly newspapers or its sordid television dramas, of which a version of The Judgement was one. The novel relates the last days of Fak, the janitor of the local temple school. Fak's father has passed away, leaving Fak to care for his father's widow, Somsong, who is quite out of her mind. The rumor mill begins to screech that Fak and Somsong are sleeping with each other. And though the rumor has no basis in fact, Fak's sterling reputation begins to tarnish: one of the Buddhist precepts prohibits illicit sexual conduct.
Nelson Demille, Up Country, 2002 Return to Vietnam of a U.S. war veteran on assignment. Contemporary fiction but interesting descriptions of place and culture.
Thu Huong Duong and Nina McPherson (Translator), Memories of a Pure Spring Penguin, 2001. Memories of a Pure Spring is a mesmerizing portrait of modern Vietnam and its people who struggle to survive under the complexities of a post-war regime. During the Vietnam war, Hung, a well-known composer, becomes enchanted by the voice and beauty of a young peasant girl named Suong. He invites her to join his troupe; she becomes his wife and his star performer. But after the war, Hung loses his job, setting off a series of events that drive him and Suong into a destructive spiral. One of Vietnam's most popular writers, Duong Thu Huong draws on her own experiences to describe life at the battlefront, the conditions of a re-education camp, and the texture and rhythm, scents and sounds, of a provincial Vietnamese city. Most of all, she tells a haunting, universal story of failed love.
Thu Huong Duong (Author), Nina McPherson (Author), Paradise of the Blind : A Novel Perennial, 2002 This staunchly unsentimental, evocative novel, originally published in Huong's native Vietnam and beautifully translated by Duong and McPherson, offers a narrative rich in detail and free of cliche. The author, who lives with her children in Hanoi, depicts the complexity of Vietnamese culture--the allegiance to family and ancestors, the symbolic value of food, class distinctions and the continuing sense of desperation mingled with pride. The protagonist, Hang, a physically fragile young woman of the '80s, recalls Hanoi in the previous decade. While there are subtle allusions to war and peacetime, Huong's focus is on the shifting, uneasy relationships between modernized Hang and her traditionalist mother, a merchant who peddles food; Hang's selfish, hypocritical uncle, a communist peasant; and Hang's comparatively wealthy, unconditionally loving aunt. Contrasts between young, old, urban and rural, help to convey the full variety of Vietnamese lifestyles. McPherson's introduction provides essential background information without spoiling the plot of Huong's unquestionably powerful tale.
Graeme Green, The Quiet American, Modern Library, reissue, 1992
Graham Greene wrote one of the best novels of the 20th century with "The Quiet American." His straightforward, elegant prose along with ample doses of irony and humor, make this novel a masterpiece. Greene's characters are extraordinarily complex and passionate beneath their seemingly quiet exteriors. Published in 1955, during the waning days of French colonialism and the beginning of American intervention in Southeast Asia, the book foreshadowed the America War in Vietnam.
Thomas Fowler, Greene's narrator, is a cynical, veteran journalist for a London newspaper based in Saigon in 1952. The dispassionate Fowler has "gone native." He has fallen in love with Vietnam and with the lovely Phoung, a one-time taxi dancer who is young enough to be his daughter. Despite the turbulent political climate, Fowler is content with filing an occasional story and living a pleasurable, carefree life. His dream is to convince his Catholic wife, back in England, to divorce him so he can live out his days idyllically with Phoung and an opium pipe in Saigon.
Enter Alden Pyle, a seemingly innocuous, naive American who is supposedly part of a medical assistance delegation sent by the US government. Pyle is a passionate advocate of an American foreign policy theorist named York Harding, who has proposed that the solution to the problems in French Indochina is a "third force," other than the French colonial government and the Vietminh insurgents currently battling for control of the country. Pyle has really come to Vietnam to foster this alternative third player - a Vietnamese strongman who would lead an American-backed government.
Fowler and Pyle meet and improbably, the jaded, world-weary Brit and the earnest, patriotic American form a friendship - until Pyle intrudes in the relationship between Fowler and Phoung. Pyle falls in love with Phuong, almost at first sight. He seduces her away from Fowler with promises of marriage and a life in America. Initially, Pyle's innocence and decency were endearing to Fowler. However, with the potential loss of his lover and the increasing evidence that Pyle is involved in violent clandestine activities, Fowler's feelings toward Pyle begin to sour and the friendship becomes strained. Still Fowler strives to remain objective about the political situation and proclaims, "I don't get involved. I just report what I see".
After a car bomb in downtown Saigon kills several innocent bystanders, Fowler traces the contents of the bomb back to Pyle. He realizes that Pyle, in his fervent adherence to ideological theories, has lost his humanity. He sees Pyle as the quintessential innocent and too simplistic: "'...I had better look after Pyle.' That was my first instinct - to protect him. It never occurred to me that there was greater need to protect myself. Innocence always calls mutely for protection, when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it. Innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world meaning no harm." And finally, Fowler is dramatically forced to take sides. He can no longer be a passive observer to the growing conflict.
Graham Greene quotes Lord Byron on one of the pages preceding the novel, "This is the patent age of new inventions/ For killing bodies, and for saving souls. All propagated with the best intentions." This novel is at once a powerfully prophetic commentary and a riveting thriller. Beautifully crafted.