Ahad, 22 Disember 2013

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The Star Online: Lifestyle: Bookshelf

Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China

Posted: 21 Dec 2013 08:00 AM PST

Historians might not agree with the conclusions of this book but its author has done a fine job of ensuring that they will now certainly discuss this lesser known historical figure.

HISTORY, it is well known, is written by the victors: the vanquished are rarely in a position to write anything at all. So it is always interesting when a historian goes back to hitherto unknown or untapped source material and puts together a picture which is completely at odds with the received view.

It appears that, up until now, the Empress Dowager Cixi has had pretty poor press. Words like tyrant, dictator, poisoner, traitor, self-interested, immoral and incompetent seem to crop up regularly in traditional accounts of her rise and exercise of power. Jung Chang's book changes all that. In her hands, Cixi becomes a skilled and far-sighted ruler who has been much maligned but who, in fact, guided a reluctant nation towards the modern world. It makes for an interesting argument.

Chang is, of course, best known for her international blockbuster, Wild Swans, published originally in 1991. It became one of the best non-fiction sellers of all time, some 10 million copies and counting, and was translated into 37 languages.

It told in unflinching terms the story of three generations of Chinese women: her grandmother, her mother and herself. For most of those who read it, the book was a gripping eye-opener: so this was what China was really like in those years when little reliable information leaked out. It read like the nightmare those years really were for ordinary people and it made Chang the voice of China in the West. Needless to say, it was banned in her mother country.

It is unlikely, I think, that Empress Dowager Cixi will enjoy the popular acclaim accorded to Chang's previous two books. While Wild Swans reads like a gripping novel, this is much more of a history book – a brief look at the sources and index at the back of the book confirm the amount of scholarly research that has gone into its writing. This becomes increasingly evident as the book progresses.

As Cixi begins to wield power, the demand on the reader to recall names, factions and political deals significantly increases. These were clearly complex and difficult times for China as a nation and as if that wasn't enough, there were the additional complications caused by court factions, not a few of whom initially had very considerable difficulties in accepting that a woman should exercise any power at all.

That she did so was due to her delivery of a first male child to the Xianfeng Emperor in 1856. That maternal act gave her status and influence, and after the Emperor's death her route to real power opened up, helped along the way by Cixi's skilled and effective, some might argue devious, manoeuvring. She was to remain a key player from that time on, albeit frequently from behind the scenes.

Chang presents Cixi as a far-sighted reformer. The China she "inherited" was militarily weak and falling rapidly behind the times. Its traditions and practices were locked in centuries old beliefs and traditions. Foreigners were almost xenophobically distrusted.

But China had no means of defending itself against incursions into its territories. The bullying tactics adopted by European powers in search of trading ports make for shocking reading. There was nothing noble about their territorial and trading demands – they were motivated by pure and simple greed.

Cixi recognised that China needed to be much stronger and to have much better relations with the outside world if it was to retain its political and geographical integrity and although she was not always successful, she did effect a distinct change in attitude and diplomatic practice.

Chang concludes that, "In terms of groundbreaking achievements, political sincerity and personal courage, Empress Dowager Cixi set a standard that has barely been matched. She brought in modernity to replace decrepitude, poverty, savagery and absolute power, and she introduced hitherto untasted humaneness, open-mindedness and freedom. And she had a conscience. Looking back over the many horrific decades after Cixi's demise one cannot help but admire this amazing stateswoman, flawed though she was."

Historians, of whom I am not one, will doubtless argue over this verdict and point to significant flaws in both judgement, such as her misguided support for the Boxer rebellion, and to her ruthlessness in, for instance, poisoning Emperor Guangxu to ensure that he should not succeed her. But, of course, the ongoing debate it stimulates is both the interest and the fun of revisionist history. And Jung Chang is a very fine proponent.

A Curse On Dostoevsky

Posted: 21 Dec 2013 08:00 AM PST

"FOR every crime, there must be a punishment...."

So begins A Curse On Dostoevsky, Afghan-born writer Atiq Rahimi's latest opus. In this fabulous re-imagining of Fyodor Dostoevsky's famous novel, Crime And Punishment (1866), Rahimi's protagonist is Rassoul, an Afghani who studied Russian literature in Leningrad. He's now back in Afghanistan and living in a squalid little room filled with books by Russian authors, Dostoevsky being one. The other great love of Rassoul's life is his fiancé, Sophia, who possesses such power over him that Rassoul would do anything for her.

In either a homage to or a cheeky take on Crime And Punishment, Rahimi recreates the opening scene of Dostoevsky's novel by introducing Rassoul fresh from committing a murder, axe in hand, cold body at his feet, and blood on the floor.

Rassoul, being such a fan of Dostoevsky's novel, identifies closely with Crime And Punishment's protagonist, Raskolnikov, and thinks he is Dostoevsky's anti-hero. So like Raskolnikov, following the murder, Rassoul at first runs away and then searches for the meaning of his crime. Through tortured internal monologues, Rassoul tries to makes sense of the crime he committed, wondering if murdering someone would have made Sophia love him more and, most disturbingly, why his crime remains unpunished.

Through those monologues, Rahimi paints a picture of an Afghanistan that is far from peaceful, and a Kabul that is in conflict with itself and the foreigners who have invaded the country. Even though A Curse does not give a specific time frame, there are hints that the Afghan militants in charge of the country are vehemently anti-Russian, which indicates that the novel is set in the early 1980s, during the Soviet Union's war with Afghanistan.

Although Rassoul's conscience informs him that he should be punished, part of him is also afraid of what awaits him should he be caught. While the debate between right and wrong rages inside Rassoul's head, Afghanistan, too, finds herself fighting on two fronts, against suspected communist followers and the Soviet invaders.

When Rassoul returns to the scene of his crime, a thousand possibilities await him. It is perhaps due to Rahimi's genius that he does not offer a concrete solution for Rassoul. The very open ending allows each reader to determine the fate of this tortured anti-hero.

It can be argued that the anguish and anger that Rassoul feels not only towards his crime but also the fact that it has gone unpunished can also be read as the anguish and anger that many – if not all – people living in a war-torn country feel. And Rassoul's conscience debating right and wrong can also be seen as a metaphor for the civil war in Afghanistan that had Afghanis fighting against each other for years, so long, in fact, that they had forgotten why they fight.

Rahimi seems to have perfected the art of telling tales of life in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, giving A Curse On Dostoevsky a feel of acute airless paranoia, hopelessness, desperation and frustration, mixed with an undertow of anger that permeated the Afghan landscape of that particular era.

Though translated works often lose the nuances of their languages of origin, A Curse On Dostoevsky – originally written in French – manages to retain a distinct flavour of desperation and fading hope and the ever-growing anger of a man trying to make sense of his life, his crime, and the social injustice of his crime going unpunished.

Although A Curse On Dostoevsky is very much influenced by Crime And Punishment, this novel is very much about Rahimi's thoughts about his birth country, which continues to battle with herself decades after the Soviet invasion. Perhaps Rahimi sees parallels between Rassoul's crime going unpunished and the invasion of his country by outsiders going unpunished, even ignored, by the rest of the world.

For those who are not familiar with Rahimi's works, A Curse On Dostoevsky is a good starting point. For those who love Middle Eastern literature or want to compare Rahimi's version with Dostoevsky's masterpiece, this novel should be considered. Either way, it is well worth a read.

Rigih And The Witch Of Moon Lake (The Jugra Chronicles #2)

Posted: 21 Dec 2013 08:00 AM PST

THIS book continues where Miyah And The Forest Demon (2011) left off. I reviewed that book too and found it engaging, mystical and a page-turner.

The review can be found at The Star Online (tinyurl.com/mg9tthq). When I reviewed Miyah I did not realise there would be a sequel in two years' time. This new book doesn't fail to impress, though. It has all the ingredients to capture the attention of pre-teens and teens and get them to keep reading right till the end.

Based in Sarawak, it has many themes and native words that would be familiar to readers – from hantu to penyamun and the shape-shifter.

It starts off introducing readers to the village of Tapoh where Kumang, her younger sister Malidi and their friend Suru live.

Suru is athletic and loves to go hunting with her brother Temaga and their friend Rigih. Kumang recently married Majang, while Malidi is a young, curious and adventurous girl.

One day, Malidi picks up some beads in the forest – despite countless warnings from elders never to do this, as they believe things found in the forest could either be enchanted or bait by penyamun wanting to kidnap children and youths.

But Malidi has seen those beads before and since nobody else has picked them up, she thinks they are safe to take to the longhouse.

When she is found out, her parents try to get a healer to free her of the "spell" while confining her to a room in their home.

Malidi is miserable being stuck in her room and not even allowed out to have a bath. Unable to stand it any longer, Malidi sneaks out of the house one day when she discovers she is alone. She takes the beads and runs out to have a bath nearby.

When she is done, Malidi intends to return home when she hears a rustling nearby.

And then she disappears!

With both Miyah and now Malidi missing – Miyah disappeared in the first book – something must be done.

Believing that Malidi, like Miyah before her, has been taken by a hantu, Miyah's brother Bongsu, who has the gift of sight, and Rigih go to Nenek Kebayan for help. The trio then set forth on a journey to find the Bobohizan (witch) of Moon Lake, for only she can vanquish a hantu.

I have to admit I was reluctant to start reading this book. Despite being familiar with author Tutu Dutta-Yean's works and being a fan of them, I feared that this book might be a letdown because I am not a big fan of stories about mystical beings or those set in the jungle.

I needn't have worried. Dutta-Yean has not disappointed. From the first chapter, Rigih And The Witch Of Moon Lake is a page-turner. It's a quick read and your pre-teen and teenage kids will not want to put it down for needing to know what happens next.

This book can be read as a sequel to the first book or as a standalone.

The black and white illustrations are few but help readers picture what the characters look like and even serve to get readers to empathise with characters.

The Tapoh family tree at the start of the book also helps readers to keep track of who is who.

Another good feature of the book is the glossary at the back of the book for words like pisacha and remaung.

Once again, Dutta-Yean has done a good job. She is a splendid storyteller who really takes the time to put in a lot of details into her stories and reel the reader in with her memorable characters and intriguing plot.

Kudos also to illustrator Tan Vay Fern for the beautiful drawings.

Kredit: www.thestar.com.my

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