World Review of Books – Jamaica to Jordan

Reading stories increases empathy. What better reason to read books from other parts of the world? If every book is a chance to devleop empathy with more people, imagine how many opportunities we miss by always reading books from the same places, written by the same sort of people?

That’s why I am reading a book from every country in the world, from A to Z, to find the best world literature that you have never heard of.

Jamaica

Patricia Powell — Me Dying Trial (1993)

Setting: A poor, rural Jamaican community in the 1970s/1980s.

What it’s about: In another classic from the Caribbean Writers Series, a talented young woman from a poor community strives to thrive against all the odds: domestic violence, disdain of the upper-classes, cultural expectations and poverty.

It starts with schoolteacher Gwennie’s illicit romance, which contrasts badly with the abuse of her husband Walter, the worst sort of husband, drinking, not working, beating her, chasing away any friends she might have, belittling her and. keeping her down and then pleading with her to return when she tries to leave. But Gwennie is a character who resists:

“Don’t make sense spend your life with a man who only out to beat you have to death. It don’t spell sense a tall.”

But Walter is not a one-dimensional villain, and Gwennie remembers the man she first met:

“Him certainly not the man she marry. The man she marry used to sit up at night until late, telling her childhood stories and his plans for them future together. Him used to buy her a record or a book now and again, bring the children out to amusement parks, picnics, shows. Now him the complete opposite. What happen to Walter, what happen? Him don’t want her to have have anykind of spare time a tall to herself. Morning times she wake up, make breakfast, tidy herself and the children and leave for shcool. Afternoons, she come home, cook, mark papers, if she have time she do a little washing or sewing. Then is time to go to sleep.”

Eventually Gwennie leaves for good and “lives in foreign” — migrating to the United States to be a domestic worker, a better way to support her children than being a teacher n Jamaica.

Me Dying Trial is also a story about class and what could have been. Gwennie’s story does not have to end in migration: she is passionate about social reform and union meetings. She has the potential to transform her community. But conservatism and violence force her to leave.

The story also follows the lives of her children and how they deal with an abusive father and an absent mother. It is a book of sad silent partings and quiet, merciful reunitings.

Why you should read it: The lives of Powell’s characters feel so real and authentic, yet completely original. Like Rudi, the eldest son who looks after his mother, supports his siblings and stands up to his violent father, all the while bravely exploring his homosexuality and leaving the create his own life in the United States when his mother fails to accept him for who he is at the end of the novel:

“I used to give Daddy the money Mama send once a month, like damn idiot. But then me stop for him wouldn’t buy Jeff shoes for school or give me money for the house. Him probably used to pay off his debts with it. Then him start to spite me. Wouldn’t pay any of the big bills. Everything fall down on me shoulders. One whole month them cut off the lights and Daddy wouldn’t turn it back on.”

Or the relationship between the talented Peppy, who will never know her father and grows up with her aunt, hardly knowing her mother. She also makes tough decisions, including leaving the aunt who raised her on her deathbed, while the aunt sends her adopted daughter away with the admonishment to seek a better life:

“New Green don’t ahve any future to give you, only baby and marriage, hungry-belly and poverty. I want you to have more. I want you to turn lawyer, or teacher or doctor, even businesswoman. I don’t want to see you with New Green boys, all them give you is hungry-belly and plenty chilreden.”

The book tells us little about life in the States, but is a vital perspective on the conditions that drive people to move to other countries to seek freedom and opportunities denied them at home.

Read it if you liked: Augustown by Kei Millar, which feels somehow twinned with this book.

Rating: **

Japan

Michio Takeyama — The Burmese Harp (1948)

Setting: Burma at the end of the Second World War.

What it’s about: A pacifist book about the human cost of war. A troop of Japanese soldiers tries to survive the end of the war. One mythical member of their troop, Corporal Mzushima, saves them by blending into to the Burmese community and eventually disappears. As they live in a prison camp, they catch glimpses of him transformed into a buddhist monk.

Eventually we discover that the heroic figure has taken on a spiritual task: burying the thousands of Japanese solidiers abandoned by his retreating army, those sick and wounded soldiers who either died or committed suicide when left behind:

“The explosions of grenades were frequently heard in the fields and forests after retreating Japanese troops had passed by. The local villagers knew it. “Ah, another one has killed themselves” the villagers would think to themselves.
How many tragedies happened in this way that they were never reported, never told…they were simply forgotten completely.”

Why you should read it: Burmese Harp is an antidote to the stereotype of Japanese soldiers as manic kamikazes. Here they are human, often gentle characters, trying to survive and rediscover their humanity through communioin with nature, music and spirituality.

“Carrying out this war was certainly criminal, but those young men brought here to fights, and have died, of what were they guilty? English or Japonese, all these soldiers are above all men, and their souls have now left this world.”

The soldiers constantly debate philosophy and politics, sing and play instruments, and meekly surrender to English soldiers and work to help bury the dead of both sides.

Read it if you liked: Any books about the sorrow of war. Giving a lead character the gruesome, Herculean task of burying the dead for whom nobody else will take responsibilty is also present in Maaza Mengiste’s excellent Beneath the Lions Gaze.

This book is an excellent counterpoint to Joseph Conrad’s bitter tale of humanity lost in jungle. In Burmese Harp, the soldiers find humanity in the darkness of the jungle, and in the final scenes, instead of hearing Charles Marlow deliver the chilling story in a boat bobbing in the darkness, the Japanese captain reads a spiritual letter from the corporal turned buddhist monk, who refuses to return home until he has scene to all the fallen soliders.

Rating: *

The best book from Japan: I also enjoyed Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen, about her boyfriend and his transexual mother who take her in. The mother is tragically killed. The story is airy and whimsical but the romance is tiresome.

I was disappointed with a reissue and new translation of 1908 ‘tale’ The Miner by Natsume Soseki, who proudly insists it is not a novel. I respect any writer who tries, like George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier, to bring to light the dreadful conditions down in the mine, but this book pulls its punches.

The excellent edition from Aardvark Bureau provides a great introduction and post-script, explaining that the story was written just after a major uprising by abused miners in a notorious Japanese copper mine, and based on first-hand testimony of conditions workers faced. Yet Soseki seems unable to look beyond his class and comfortable Tokyo milieu enough to sympathise with their plight. He sees through the eyes of Tokyo dandy fleeing a failed romance, and is more interested in modernist reflection on small details and psychological exploration of the bourgeois character.

“First I had run away from home, set for the possibility of dying. That had changed in the second stage to a desire to go where there were no people. Then along came the third stage: a determination to work.”

The poor people who need to work to earn a living, are presented to the reader as dishonest, unscrupulous and mean. The miners he encounters are treated, and often described, as brutal savages.

Half the book is taken up with his journey to the mine. The descent into the dark is gripping,

“Far off, I heard a clanging sound…It was not a sound from a world where north, south, east and west meant anything.”

It would have been more powerful if it came with more respect for the people who endure it for more than a day. In the end, the lack of compassion in writer and protagonist turns it into a sort of Tripadviser review.

The story ends absurdly with the protagonist becoming a bookkeeper, whose role is to tot up all the charges being deducted from miners’ salaries – so instead of winning their respect, they know “went out of their way to butter me up”. The terrible conditions, the exploitation are just features to be detailed briefly like natural phenomena.


Jordan

Fadi Zaghmout — The Bride of Amman (2015)

Setting: Contemporary Amman

What it’s about: A really original book follows the life of four young women and a homosexual man, trying to find their way in a conservative, patriarchal society.

The women have different ways of dealing with the pressures and expectations of society. One complains of a mother who doesn’t want her to wear a veil, lest it should reduce her chances of getting married.

Another is brought to meet a potential suitor:

“I am the ball being knocked back and forth, which they are at liberty to dissect and scrutinise.”

Zaghmout brings a wry wit to dissect ubrane Jordanian society, and doesn’t hold back when criticising its hypocrisy, and pointing out how fragile and artificial are the norms that justify traditions:

“Every male member of the family see himself as a sentry guard, watching us like hawks, ready to pull us up at any time we cross their red lines that dictate how we can and can’t behave.
Honour is something fragile, prone to being shattered. And yet, bizarrely, it is also flexible, and the men knead it like dough into whatever shape suits them and helps them exert their control over the women.”

Why you should read it: For the fearless way Zaghmout takes on the repression and violence that lies behind conservative societies that impose conformity. This excerpt is a particularly powerful account of the challenges faced by the LGBT+ community in the Arab World today: