Category Archives: Books

May I Borrow Your Books?

Here’s a simple request from a friend who stops by the house and peeks into my study room at the chaotic piles of books lying on the carpet beneath my desk, or from a few eager readers who pick up a few names of writers in an engaging conversation over a glass of wine.
It should be a harmless request, by any measure of a friendship. For after all, don’t friends exchange gifts, help each other out with money, chores and often times go to the ridiculous length of covering up our minor embarrassments?
But these are not just books, but Walter Benjamin’s Baudelaire, Aragon’s Paris Peasant, Gombrowicz’s Diaries! Even those bent out of shape by mounting pressure of newly acquired books, each and everyone of them has been selected and picked with triumphant cheers out of neglected shelves in a bookstore somewhere in the world or in a second-hand bookstore somewhere in the city, or from an outdated list of an online bookstore. How am I to say yes? With the resignation, but an anxious heart, that these same books might not find their way back to my dust gathering pile? Or with the boundless joy of the first person passing around great masterpieces to another? And how am I to say no? One look at those eagerly awaiting eyes of the borrower is enough to make me feel repulsed with shame. After a lengthy pause, my answer is the now rehearsed refrain, “No, but I’ll buy them for you.” Which is certainly a quizzical answer to a harmless request, but the most I could do under the circumstances, and in consequence of which, naturally, I have to order those books.
This sense of commitment, bothersome in most instances, arises nonetheless from a strong conviction that this writer friend should read these books; they are good for them. And if out of lack of the means or resources to procure them, now that they’ve found them in my collection and I don’t do anything about it, I’m the selfish fool to deprive them of the opportunity. It’s enough of a burden on my conscience to goad me endlessly to get those books right away.

I couldn’t put a finger on this troublesome bug until recently when I picked up a new issue of the New Yorker. It happened when I was in my teens in a North Sumatera city. A renowned Chinese American author, Maxine Hong-Kingston, was invited to talk in a small American library, and I had the opportunity to show her my writing and talked to her about writing and books. She told me to find some good writings in New Yorker. I had never heard of this magazine before. The American librarian who happened to overhear our conversation told me she subscribed to the magazine and would lend some to me. Weeks later when I still didn’t receive the magazines, I made bold to visit the librarian in her office. In a rather begrudged tone, she told me she hadn’t finished reading them yet. Embarrassed, I beat a retreat. I didn’t hear from her again until months later when I received a dozen old issues of the New Yorker. In a pithy note, she apologized for the delay and told me I could have them because she was moving back to the States.

I can only assume now that it must have been hard for her to part with those prized magazines she had enjoyed so much, but now that she had to leave town the magazines must have been a cumbersome addition to all the freight that needed to be shipped out. I was in a sense the fortunate inheritor of a pile disposed of more for pragmatic reasons than largesse of an altruistic soul.
I naturally don’t blame this librarian for her need to cling on to her magazines for as long as possible, but I certainly don’t share her ‘charitable’ spirit. I would like to believe that my obsession to get hold of books in my possession for my friends who dearly want to read them hails from a different source. It is, I believe, from understanding the urgent need of another reader for fabulously good reads.
Over the years, I have had as much joy in receiving and giving out books, but very rarely I’ve invited them to my home and to my library. I would still occasionally urge them to get a book or books, or order for them, but let me be the first to tell you this: this business of sharing good reads is really a tiresome habit.

A version of this article was published by The Jakarta Globe, January 2009

Literature and Morality

While in most parts of developed countries, barriers of morality have been re-demarcated constantly by writers and painters and philosophers, in this country issues about morality in literature are still vigorously debated. Some senior writers here condemn the works of a handful of female writers – such as Djenar Maesa Ayu, Ayu Utami and Dewi Lestari – as pornographic. These senior writers lament about the loss of the head in Indonesian recent literature. These senior writers are for me as outdated as when George Sand commented on Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Sand questioned Flaubert with concern why he wrote a novel so bereft of any morality as Madame Bovary. Flaubert replied to Sand he was not as much interested in the morality of Madame Bovary as he was with her humanity.

Flaubert’s obsession with mots justes and frailty of humanity earned him today the reputation as father of literary modernism. Nietzsche and the postmodern thinkers, such as André Breton, Georges Battaile and the ilk, have pushed the limits of morality ever to the edge. Once they were also accused of being blasphemous in arts. Now they are considered pioneers of the arts. The umbilical cord that once bound literature and morality have once and for all been sundered. Milan Kundera says there’s a history of the arts, but in art there is no history. Repetition in the art is pointless. Any artist worth the salt of the earth constantly aims to break through precedent accepted forms or thoughts. To demand that these writers or artists to conform to the rigidity of morality, or any doctrine for that matter, is akin to tying up the hands behind them, while demanding that they be bold to raise the bars of esthetics.

What then can be gotten out of literature? I hear one of these moralists holler from the back of the room. I think literature is the exchange medium of human experiences. We read into a line of poetry or a paragraph of fiction the relativity of our own experiences and certain ingrained humane truths.

For example, here is a short poem by Philip Larkin, which connects with most enlightened readers, but might have irked stout believers. The poem is called Water.

If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.

Going to church
Would entail a fording
To dry, different cloths;

My liturgy would employ
Images of sousing
A furious devout drench,

And I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.

It is clear Larkin is a very religious (or secularly) spiritual poet, whichever point of view one wants to look at the poem). Stanza by stanza, he is clearly saying to us one can’t take religiosity as easily as attending church regularly. It takes more ardor than that, for it ‘would entail a fording to dry, different cloths. This is reaffirmed in the next stanza that more rigors are required to carve a path to religiosity: My liturgy would employ/Images of sousing/A furious devout drench.

The lines such as I should raise in the east/A glass of water and Where any-angled light/Would congregate endlessly denote for me Larkin’s call for tolerance of differences of faith because all are congregated by the same light of the Supreme Being. Such a poem might easily offend a devout Christian. In the hand of a highly enlightened poet such as Larkin, he has both broken through an impasse in esthetic expression about religion (a much traversed path since Keats and Shelly) and imparts a fresh truth about religiosity at the same time. Therefore, taking offense at the blasphemous nature of the poem or at the poet would only connote a sort of bigotry or rigidity of one’s understanding of faith.

In the end, we must admit that morality is rigid and art is always dynamic. To find one in the other is possible through a winking irony such as in Larkin’s poem, but often times, the preoccupation of art lies elsewhere.

A version of this article was published in The Jakarta Globe, December 2008

The Pleasure of Scavenging Through Mouldy Heaps

I’ve always been intrigued by readers who underline vigorously passages in a book or jot impressions or reactions on the page margins. Those who affix Ex Libris stickers or sign their names on the front pages of a book equally puzzle me. I don’t know why I can’t ever bring myself to do that. I slip bookmarks in places where I think I might need them for references. At most, and this is most assuredly my only sin, I earmark them ever so slightly on the tiny triangular edge of the pages, only when I can’t get hold of a bookmark. Whenever a book soiled with coffee stains or in one instance when the book is splashed with splotches of wine from the burst of a decompressed bottle on a flight back from abroad, I become restless and find every opportunity to replace it with a new one.

You would assume then from the statement I’ve just made that I buy only books in mint condition, which will be furthest from the truth. I love ransacking old books in secondhand bookstalls. I don’t mind if the books have been burrowed through by worms or turned grimy with mildew through time. I pick them out carefully from the forgotten piles and bring them home. I keep them out of my library for a few days to ‘clear’ them out of all different kinds of insects before installing them among the heaps of secondhand books on the stacks of secondhand books on my sofa. These books that I’ve picked are mostly free of inky scrawls. But in some cases where I find myself unable to resist the temptation to obtain certain books, which have been underlined or signed by the owners, I shove them into the black plastic bag along with the others. I’m, as you can see, more flexible with experienced books. I find them less demanding of my care and precaution. Their grubby appearances clearly display their survival over time and banishment into debris. The fact that they’ve been retrieved and read again is proof of their strength in renewing their own dignity and worth. Thus, reading them is truly liberating. There is no courteousness required between us; they’re the true equals.

In consequence of my repeated visits to secondhand bookstalls, I have now in possessions a whole collection of Alistair MacLean’s thrillers, almost all of Morris West and Han Suyin’s novels and Guy de Maupassant’s complete works. Among these precious relics salvaged from dusty oblivion are a few prize possessions. A Foreign Languages Press, Peking 1973 edition of Wu Ching-Tzu’s The Scholars, a Commercial Press, Ltd, Shanghai 1923 illustrated edition of Shu-Chiung’s Yang Kuei-Fei, The Most Famous Beauty of China, and a Black’s Readers Service Company, Roslyn, New York 1925 edition of Honore de Balzac’s rare collection of novelettes.

Walter Benjamin describes a book collector’s psychology as a ‘dialectic tension between disorder and order’. What sets out as an orderly urge to purchase a book, over time with unremitting frequency of purchases, turns into an unruly passion. The unread acquisitions turn into chaotic piles that don’t serve a utilitarian purpose: they just sit there. The chaos often puzzles a visitor to the private library. Of all the things the visitor could say, he often chooses the most annoying question. “And you’ve read all these books?” Luckily, having read enough books, I have always on hand a reply from Anatole France, the 1921 French Nobel Laureate. “Not one-tenth of them. I don’t suppose you use your Royal Doulton china every day?”

You must naturally be warned about the many excuses, for they are mostly well-defined excuses for an unwieldy passion, that book collectors might try to pass over to you. In all honesty, they are as befuddled about the whole business as a ten-year old child. Walter Benjamin in fact makes an attempt to explain this symptom as akin to a child’s obsession to collect things. He reasons that there’s a kind of thrill that comes with ownership of objects, which might arise from the magical sense of fate in the encounter. Another explanation from the renowned American literary critic Harold Bloom might well warm to the truth of the matter. He says that a book collector’s obsession to acquire books could be his need to maximize his potential. As for me, I just wallow unabashedly in this most delightful of all passions.

A version of this article appeared May 23, 2009, in The Jakarta Globe.

The Meaning of Family Gathering

For as far back as I can remember I’ve always had this unfathomable fascination with Italian Mafioso family gatherings. The boorish kin would saunter sprightly up to the dining table; moments ago we saw him bump off a stooge without the blink of an eye in some back alley. Looking as happy as a man who’s just bared his chest at a church confession box, the bloodstain on his shirtsleeve barely soaped off, he dives straight into a repartee between a cousin and a niece or a nephew. The spaghetti, wines and gruff pleasantries flow seamlessly. An aura of invincible bonhomie begins to form under the domed lights as each member of the family takes the designated seat round the table. The world, along with any of its conceivable nuisances, is as removed as the sturdy multi-padlocked door that keeps it at bay, inside there’s only the cloistered imperturbability of the clan.

For some reason, I’ve always believed this is the ideal family gathering. There’s ineffable respect in the congregate, the ritual-like draw to the dinner table at the appointed hour without fail, and the unconcealed joy of being together to celebrate the passage of another day. Egos, discords and any form of personal sentiments work themselves out openly in this confluence: there’s no generation gap or authority based on age or who begets whom prior to who, every member of the assembly, from the babbling toddler to the intravenous geriatric, has an equal say on everything that transpires around the table. The gathering has the feel of a workout session in the Communist party, minus the Chairman and Vice Chairman and the Manifesto. Slight gradations of personal likes and dislikes are tacitly observed: Granpa doesn’t like his leg of roast duck to be messed with before he has anything to say about it; Eldest Son must have his fresh bottle of ketchup, he can’t stand the runny remains that splotch out of a half-empty bottle; Aunt Marie insists on the cutlery and plates served spot clean; Grandma, albeit incapable of being heard above the confusing dins, wouldn’t be denied her prayer before chow down. Everyone knows what everyone else wants and doesn’t want. Labor is miraculously self-distributed. Every member is either bringing onto the table what he or she personally likes, and what she or he knows the others like. In this monad-like little kernel, implosion is inevitable and a daily event that is naturally dissipated. There’s no remainder in the vanishing blowup, or any long-standing Freudian psycho haywire that can’t be rewired on the spot at each gathering. Whatever happens within the walls of the dining room remains there permanently.

Of course, you’re allowed to object to my rather wry take on family gatherings and accuse me of being overly misinformed by Mario Puzo’s Don Corleone, and worse, misconstrue my infatuation with the idea of the ideal family as one condoning any crimes outside of the family. But think on this with me for a second. How else in this rambunctious, instantly disruptive modern life can a family stay a fortified unit without the menacing presence of the perverse Ogre on the outside that threatens its dispersal on a second to second basis? Of course, this is a debatable moot point, but I’d like to posit that even if the world as we know it were truly safe and exuding love at its every pore, I still believe the family unit must be constantly under the duress of a phantom fear of the family’s possible disunity for it to keep the fire of the hearth truly ablaze.

The world as we know it is of course moving in a different direction. Ask yourself this question. How often have you been invited to a family gathering? When you do get these invitations, I bet they entail gifts for birthdays, weddings or contributions to the box at the entrance of a funeral parlor. They are never truly family dinners per se, ones with no special agendas other than getting together to share the mishaps of the day or the celebratory guffaws. More often, you get invites to ‘other’ people’s families: the scarcity of one’s own kinsfolk has made it imperative to include close and immediate friends to add cheers to every occasion. I was once invited to this kind of ‘other’ people’s family dinner, but with a slight twist of the motive. Seated at the table were the daughter, recently graduated from a prestigious university in the States, the son, with spiky gelled hair, aptly positioned across from me, about to begin his sophomore year in yet another prestigious university in the States. No sooner had I tasted the tempting barbequed pork before me, I realized I hadn’t been invited for the parents’ anniversary nor for any one of the siblings’ birthday, but as an avuncular counselor to dissuade the son from switching his computer science major to artist management. Never got invited back since, because, after tippling a few glasses from an expensive bottle of Bordeaux, I told the son it was a brilliant idea, given that as it were there were way too many computer hacks out there trying to start up porn sites. I wasn’t even being cheeky, just pragmatic!

The phenomenal profusions of seductively designed cafés with their silky cushions and sofas and ‘ambient’ restaurants pertain to the fact that the family roundtables have been permanently relocated to public domains. One would be less cynical if one were to ponder the enormous sacrifices (the huge bills) that these families have to pay to maintain a semblance of a family gathering. Maybe these bills are the menacing Ogres, the required threat that keeps the fire of family unity ablaze. Whatever the case may be it’s still far and away from my idea of a true Mafioso family gathering, in which each member has a charismatic nickname: Ronnie the Junior, Apeng The Chin, Big Paulie, Fat Tommy, Lips Leo, Big Tuna Mamah.

Published in Now Jakarta! December 2009

Love Songs from Man’yoshu

Translated by Ian Hideo Levy, Paper Cut-Out Illustrations by Miyata Masayuki,
Introduction by Donald Keene and Commentary by Ooka Makoto
165 Pages
Kodansha International

I was rummaging in the depths of my shelves when I came upon this book. I must tell you I was truly surprised. For the life of me I can’t remember ever owning a book like this. A beautifully designed jacket cover with airbrushed limbo blue background and the title written in Katakana in bold blood red strokes ripping down from the top right edge and an English title in a banner across the seductively fine cut-out illustration of a reclining Japanese lady from the renowned artist, Miyata Masayuki. I can’t remember which Japanese friend had given me this book –– I’m almost certain it must have been a gift ––but right there and then I was gone. Ooka Makoto’s words, in the opening of his brief introduction to the book, described precisely how I felt about this book, which turned out to be a collection of love poems culled from a collection of 4.500 love poems in the Man’yoshu, The Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves, the first and considered the world’s greatest anthology of lyrical poems from around 7 or 8 A.D in the Nara period of Japan . This is what Makoto, the renowned expert of Japanese ancient poetry, has to say about this book, “For some reason we expend a portion of the time allotted us in life in the reading of books. These include a certain number of books that we read as a kind of necessity. But the truly great reading experiences come from our discovery of books that we indeed don’t have to read, books that liberate us, release us into a state like a free-floating dream.” Free-floating dream, that was the kind of state I was in, reading these poems.

The Man’yoshu apparently consists of public and private poems. Public poems are poems written during that period in praise of the Emperor or poems written for special stately occasions. The poems selected for this book are mostly private poems, personal expressions or exchanges. They were written mostly in ancient lyrical form of short tanka form of thirty-one syllables, in the five-line 57-57-7 format. Tanka, of course, is the precursor to the latter development of the haiku, the terse three-line 5-7-5 format of the modern Japanese verse. Don’t bother though to count the syllables or the lyrical feet in this collection, because the translator Ian Hideo Levy somehow didn’t conform to the precise format of the tanka, nor the standard lyrical feet in the Japanese tradition, which I find rather perplexing given the importance of the economy of words which are in fact governed by lyrical feet to achieve the most concise expressions, which is the essence of the Japanese verses.

These so-called private poems were written in a period of cultural bloom in Japan: the Nara period in 7 or 8 A.D. From what I’ve read in the introduction, it certainly seemed to me a most progressive period. How else would you describe a period in the history of a country in which a man could freely write love poems to another man’s wife? As it turns out, there’s an explanation to this care-free lifestyle. “Men and women in Man’yoshu period did not live together even after marriage. Their relationship took the form of “wife-visitation marriage,” in which the man would commute to his wife’s abode. Since there were no ceremonies at all, no weddings or banquets, the distinction between the pre and post-nuptial state was not as clear as it is now. Marriage was a matter decided on the basis of the partners’ consciousness; action was the sole proof of love. Lacking the censures of monogamy, love often found its objects in the wives of other men. ‘I shall keep company with the wife of another; let others make their proposal to my wife’: thus was the propriety of extra-marital love generously sung, without the slightest hint of guilt. Far from being guilty, the man would become obsessed with a woman because ‘she was another man’s wife,’ and the woman, wondering who it was who told her ‘to undo my waistcloth,’ made no attempt to conceal her voluptuous emotions: thus were the recitations of love by mature men and women sonorously repeated. Their straightforward, astonishingly carefree confessions contain not the slightest suggestion of obscenity. If anything, we read them with an agreeable sense of bemusement.” This really is mind-blowing stuff. Looking at it from modern perspective, we are in fact regressing! Think of all the wasted emotions such as jealousy, possessiveness and violence in the families, all of which are products of modern human ties and loves!

Man’yoshu poems are especially unique because they can be poems that consist of two stanzas, making up the exchanges of two lovers, in which case it is called Sedoka or in the form of Katauta, the question and answer forms, or the first stanza started by a poet to be completed by a different poet. Or surrogate poems, poems written on behalf of the other.

This is an example of the Sedoka, considered the greatest love poem in the Man’yoshu.

Going over the fields of Murasaki grass
that shimmer crimson,
going over the fields marked as imperial domain,
will the guardian of the fields not see you
as you wave your sleeves at me?
Princess Nukata (Volume 1, 20)

This was responded by Prince Oama, who was pining for the Princess, who was his former wife.

If I despised you, who are as beautiful
as the murasaki grass,
would I be longing for you like this,
though you are another man’s wife?

A breathlessly piquant exchange that is both eloquent and yet so purely succinct. Here’s one surrogate poem written by Lady Otonomo Sakanoue on behalf of an inexperienced young girl.

Painful is the love
that remains unknown to the beloved,
like the star lily that has bloomed
in the thick foliage
of the summer field.

Lady Otonomo Sakanoue (Volume 8, 1500)

Most of these poems are expressions of hidden loves, longing for the return of the loved ones, or laments for the loss of the loved ones. Among these I find most fascinating is the fact that it was considered a curse for the woman when the object of one’s yearning was made known. Hidden love, while costing pains in the one who’s pining, is considered the highest form of self-sacrifice for the loved one. The following is a poem by Princess Shikishi.

Fearful it would be
to speak it out in words,
so I endure a love
like the morning glory
that never blooms conspicuously.

In a different version by an Anonymous:

I may toss and turn,
but even should I die from the longing
I shall not make it visible, reveal it in clear colors
like the blossoms of the morning glory.

All these poems make great use of nature as metaphors for hidden emotions or expressions of love. All of which are beautifully captured by Miyata Masayuki’s gorgeous paper cut-out illustrations. In 1995, in the United Nations’ bi-centennial anniversary, Miyata Masayuki was named the UN’s official artist, the first time a Japanese artist has been so honored. Miyata Masayuki has also produced illustrations for three other books, The Tale of Genji, The Narrow Road to Oku and The Tale of Bamboo Woodcutter. This new addition will surely become yet another of his masterpieces as his other works.

In the age of text messages and instant email dispatched from the many ubiquitous Wi-Fi cafes, such eloquence and understated emotions expressed through the poems in Love Songs from the Man’yoshu seem ancient and impractical, but reading them make me wonder, with the advent of digital technology, if we haven’t just lost another important art form: the art of writing love letters. With that, the ceremony of the exchange of love letters (a love poem penned on a card attached with a cherry blossom in Man’yoshu time). And with that, every subtlety of saying, “I Love You.” One can’t help look back into the past with a great sense of loss for the sublimity of culture.

Published on Now Jakarta! 2009