Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Amos Oz, Charles Emmerson and Michael Burleigh.

Between Friends by Amos Oz

 

In a collection of eight stories, Amos Oz uses his own experience of living on an Israeli kibbutz to explore the difficulties in striving for equality in communal living.

For Lucy Popescu of the Independent, “Oz brilliantly conveys the harsher side of kibbutz life”. Whilst Oz suggests no easy answers to the questions he raises, “he builds an evocative portrait of a 1950s kibbutz, the hopes and dreams of its inhabitants, and the successes and failures of communal living, using beautiful, spare prose”.

Similarly, for Alberto Manguel in the Guardian, the novel is a “lucid and heartbreaking chronicle of [a] well-intentioned and hard-working community of lonely souls”. Manguel argues that the novel makes salient points about the "Middle East conundrum”, as well as “the impossibility of utopia [as] ongoing proof of our determination to keep on trying.”

Although acknowledging that Oz “may have written more dazzling books”, Ben Lawrence in the Telegraph praises this "deeply affecting chamber piece”, suggesting it “draws on… the contradictory urges that lie at the heart of Israel’s psyche”.

All three reviewers praise Sondra Silverstein’s “deft” translation. 

 

1913: The World Before the Great War by Charles Emmerson

 

Charles Emmerson’s account paints a strikingly different picture of 1913 to more conventional tales of extravagant social endeavours undertaken in anticipation of looming destruction.

According to Kathryn Hughes writing in  the Guardian, Emmerson wants readers to experience what it felt like to be alive in 1913, “unaware of the coming rip in history”. She sees his work as an “ambitious, subtle account," noting that "Emmerson tries hard not to play the hindsight game. Still, he's honest enough to acknowledge the cheap pleasure that comes from knowing what happens next”.

David Crane, in the Spectator, is even more forthcoming in praise: “this is an immensely impressive book”. Emmerson turns 1913’s lack of headline events into a strength and “gives us a masterful, comprehensive portrait of the world at that last moment in its history when Europe was incontrovertibly ‘the centre of the universe’ and, within it, London ‘the centre of the world’”.

In contrast, Mark Damazer, reviewing the book for the New Statesman, feels Emmerson’s attempt at discussing painting, literature and architecture is “a bit half-hearted”. For Damazer, there are too many long quotations and too many important events that go untouched, although “occasionally, the world of 1913 throws up something satisfyingly contemporary”.

 

Small Wars, Far Away Places by Michael Burleigh

 

The historian Michael Burleigh's Small Wars, Far Away Places, is a document of the national liberation movements which sprang up in the two decades after the Second World War.

Although praising Burleigh’s ability to compose “pungent and pithy prose” and “bring history to life”, David Herman in the New Statesman is critical of some “puzzling absences” in the book, such as the Portugese colonial project. The reliance on Anglophone sources is also criticised, rendering the book “out of date and parochial”.

Historian John Lewis-Stempel, writing in the Express, sees Burleigh as “the don of elegant, historical writing and every vignette in this book is arresting”. However Lewis-Stempel similarly laments the gaps in knowledge and occasional errors, to him a product of Burleigh’s inability to remain a “dispassionate” historian.

Ben Shepard in the Guardian is more positive, arguing that the historical narratives Burleigh composes are “small masterpieces of lucidity and concision with complex political backcloths effortlessly painted in”. Nevertheless, Shepard argues that the “book never quite hangs together and the serial narrative method it uses gradually exhausts both writer and reader”.

The new work by Amos Oz has been praised as "a lucid and heartbreaking chronicle."
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The Sad Part Was: this story collection puts the real Bangkok on display

Thai author Prabda Yoon descends into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters.

In Bangkok’s budding literary scene, Prabda Yoon sits at the centre. Born in 1973, he’s the scion of a well-known family (his father Suthichai Sae-Yoon is the co-founder of the Nation newspaper) and is known in Thailand as not only an enfant terrible of letters but as an illustrator, screen-writer and director (his first film, Motel Mist, was shown at European festivals in 2016).

His reputation rests mainly on a collection of short stories published in 2000 entitled in Thai Kwam Na Ja Pen, roughly translated as Probability, and it is from this early collection that most of the stories now collected in The Sad Part Was are derived. Translated with cool elegance by Mui Poopoksakul, they are among the first modern Thai stories to be published in the UK.

As Poopoksakul points out in her afterword, she and Yoon are the products of similar backgrounds and epochs: upper-middle class children of Bangkok who came to consciousness in the late Eighties and Nineties. Often foreign-educated, fluent in English and conversant in global pop culture and media – Yoon did a stint at Parsons in New York after prep school at the Cambridge School of Weston – this new generation of Thai writers and artists were born into a society changing so fast that they had to virtually invent a new language to transcribe it.

In The Sad Part Was, the result is stories that one could glibly label as “post-modern” but which, in reality, perfectly match the qualities of the megacity where they are set. Bangkok is infamously mired in lurid contradiction, but it’s also a city of subtle and distorted moods that journalism and film have hitherto mostly failed to capture. The whimsical and playful surfaces of these stories have to be read against the high-octane anxieties and surreal dislocations of what was, until recently, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

Yoon uses the short form of the ten-page story to descend into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters: a schoolgirl and a beautiful female teacher who form a platonic lesbian infatuation while riding a daily bus in “Miss Space”; a couple making love during a thunderstorm whose activities are interrupted by the dismantling of two giant letters, which fall onto their roof in “Something in the Air”; a young man who meets a mysterious older man in Lumpini Park called Ei Ploang, who forces him to consider the intertwined nature of good and evil. In “Snow for Mother”, a mother waits for her little boy to grow up so that she can take him to Alaska to experience the real snow, which he never knew as a little boy in the tropics.

In “The Sharp Sleeper”, a man named Natee obsesses over losing his shirt buttons and is led into a strange reverie on the nature of dreams and the competing qualities of red and yellow pyjama shirts (Thailand’s political culture is riven by two parties popularly known as Red and Yellow Shirts). The commentary slips into effortless sarcasm:

Natee has proudly worn the red pyjama shirt several times since then, and his dream personality hasn’t altered at all. On the contrary, the shirt has encouraged him to become a man of conviction in his waking life. As to what those convictions were supposed to be, Natee wasn’t quite sure. But it was safe to say that a night shirt so principled wouldn’t drop a button so easily.

Since these stories were written, Bangkok’s political schizophrenia has lost its former air of apathy and innocence, but Yoon’s tone is quietly prescient about the eruption of violent irrationality a few years later. It’s a reminder how precious the subtlety of fiction is when set against the shrill certitudes of activism and reportage.

My favorite story here is “Something in the Air”. Its dialogues are written with hilariously archaic, bureaucratic formality, while delving into the disorientation of sexual and romantic hopes in the present century. After the couple’s love-making is interrupted, the young man suggests insolently to the woman that they resume in the open air, exposed to the furious elements. She agrees. They then notice that a dead body is lying on the roof nearby, crushed by the giant letters.

While waiting for the police to arrive, the woman sits quietly and describes her future, a happily married future in which her current lover will play no part whatsoever. He listens in melancholy astonishment until the couple are called to give their testimonies about the dead man. The officers then suspect that the couple themselves have done something scandalous – and so, stung by shame, the woman considers breaking off the relationship and setting in motion her own prophesy.

The Sad Part Was is unique in the contemporary literature of Bangkok – it doesn’t feature bar girls, white men, gangsters or scenes redolent of The Hangover Part II. Instead it reveals, sotto voce, the Thai voices that are swept up in their own city’s wild confusion and energy, and it does so obliquely, by a technique of partial revelation always susceptible to tenderness.

Lawrence Osborne is a British novelist living in Bangkok. His next book, “Beautiful Animals”, will be published by Hogarth in August

The Sad Part Was
Prabda Yoon
Tilted Axis Press, 192pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder