Whether it is good or not, I had to read this. I was misled to believe that the author won the Man booker prize 2007, as it is draped with a white banner bearing these words in the front cover. Upon checking the man booker prize website, I discovered this novel has been “long-listed” that year. Whatever long-listed means I will never know, there doesn’t seem to be such word in the dictionary. 🙂
Anyway, I have to read this book because the writer is my countryman. I saw it displayed in WH Smith Victoria train station, received raving review in Amazon.co.uk, other book blogs which is reading his book, related website thinks this country man of mine deserves to win the Man booker prize. I just got to read it, if it is only to aspire to be like him one day, to publish my novel in an international / UK market.The book started off in a dreamy and reminiscent mood. Being a non-native English speaker, his description a little lengthy with unnecessary words and prepositions, imaginative no doubt, and a little out of the norm, at times a little off-putting.
The book talks about Philip Hutton who is half English and half Chinese, born between two worlds and belonging to none, befriended a Japanese Hayato-Endo diplomat who taught him the art of akido and in return he introduced Endo to the beauty of Penang Island. But such knowledge comes at a terrible price. The enigmatic Endo is bound by disciplines of his own when Japan invaded Malaya. Philip realised that his trusted sensei – to whom he owes absolute loyalty – has been harbouring a devastating secret. Towards the middle of the book, it became a delightful read when the pace begin to pick up as the impending invasion of Japan in Malayan becomes a near reality. Philip begins to suspect if his sensei Endo-San has something to do with the bomb scare at his home party. Endo-san was the person in which Philip found harmony and balance for all his conflicting elements of being a half-breed. Torn between his love and loyalty to his teacher, who seems to be connected to him in his past life, and his love for his family; Philip found himself battling in an inner turmoil once again.
The writer’s in-depth of his heritage is shown through his writings. We were introduced to Penang and Ipoh and the plights of early Chinese immigrants. The writer provides a fusion of cultural introduction of the English, Chinese, Malay, Japanese cultures in the story. Some bits of the books are very endearing and personal to my background. Bits such as referring to grandpa as Ah Kong. The bits on Penang cuisine, mee rebus, char kuey tiau, flatulent smell of Durians etc.
Being a historian himself, restoring old buildings in Penang, Tan intended to make this book an introduction to the history of Penang and his country. So he goes through great length describing the history. It may seem textbook style, but it intended to introduce to the world the forgotten history of Malaya. It may seem annoying and distracted to be led into historical background at every opportunity possible, in this case the author had not made a polish effort in this aspect.
However I gain an insight into my own culture which I would otherwise dismissed, now I know that:
§ A gift of knife may end a relationship and bring unhappiness. My aunt, in Cambridge still, once gave me a knife back in October 2006, although I repaid with 50p, we have not talk since that day, although we were cast away in the same country far from our homeland.
§ The tapping of finger while pouring tea was the emperor’s servant way of saying thank you and enough and that the bended fingers were made to look like a sign of kneeling human figure.
§ The uniqueness of the Nyonya food and culture that I have inherited from my strait Chinese parentage.
While reading how the brutality of Japanese and how Isabel died, I must say that there are moments that I felt moved and fearful for the fragility of life (or maybe it is because I read that bit at 3 o’clock in the morning!). I knew about the history of my country, but to hear a first account or narration of what really happened and the fear that permeates through people of that land when they are faced with the dilemma of which side they should stay faithful with, still made me shuddered. I don’t understand the blind loyalty for his teacher. I do appreciate the fact that teachers are revered and respected in my culture. But to know of someone who is about to put your family in danger and conspiring against your country and still wish to sleep in the same house he lived in, is perhaps too much to take in. Well, maybe Philip Hutton (full name : Philips Ariminus Khoo-Hutton!) is an adolescent, swayed by a strange affection to his teacher, an affection mroe than what he felt for his family, I supposed.
It has the right ingredients to sell in the International market. It is historical, concerning the WWII, exultation of the British Empire (recalled the Union Jack painted on the roof top), martial art, seige and ambush, brutality, tragic and about ageing, family relationship (perhaps allusion to possible gay theme in the relationship between the teacher and the pupil), the universal dispute between fate and free-will. Tan’s final take on fate and free will is:
“Since Michiko’s death, I have thought of my grandfather’s words and I have come to the conclusion that he was entirely correct when it comes to the inevitability of a person’s destiny. While I now accept that the course of our lives has been set down long before our births, I feel that the inscriptions that dictate the directions of our lives merely write out what is already in our hearts; they can do nothing more. And we, Endo-san, Tanaka, Michiko, Kon , myself and all the lost members of my family, we were beings capable mainly of love and memory. These capabilities are the greatest gifts given to us, and we can do nothing else but live out the remembered desires and memories of out hearts.”
Perhaps what truly resonates to me in this book is that, despite your origins, a person is free to adopt elements of different cultures that defined who you are as a person and be comfortable in your own skin. You may not feel like you totally belong to a particular culture or ethnicity, but as long as you are comfortable in your skin, it doesn’t really matter if someone is to say that you had forgotten about your origin. After all what is so bad about reinventing yourself by taking good elements of each culture and shape it into yours? My original culture might have be tainted by these different cultures, but I believed by doing so, I have created an enhanced version of my identity.
The short of point given for the book was for the reason of the longwinded and overly poetic take on sentence construction, I love this book if it is only for the simple fact that it reminds of where I come from.
For the book’s synopsis and not so great review, see: