**spoiler alert** What I learned from this book (in no particular order):
1. Spring in Hampstead is depressing. Italian trains are always late.
2. Eatin...more**spoiler alert** What I learned from this book (in no particular order):
1. Spring in Hampstead is depressing. Italian trains are always late.
2. Eating macaroni with a knife, even though it is of the wormy, stringy variety, is an insult to a proper Italian cook.
3. Other people’s chills are always the fruit of folly, and the worst thing that could happen is that if they are handed on to you, who had done nothing at all to deserve them.
4. Being too sexy for your own good is hazardous to your mental health.
5. Clothes that are infested with thrift make you practically invisible.
6. It is difficult to be improper without men around.
7. There were in history numerous kings who had had mistresses and there were still more numerous mistresses who had had kings.
8. You shall only write books that God would read. Books about long-dead mistresses are NOT something that HE would read.
9. There are miserable sorts of goodness and happy sorts --- the sort you’ll have at a flower-bedecked medieval Italian castle by the sea, for instance, is the happy sort.
10. A flower-bedecked Italian castle by the sea can repair the most broken of marriages and induce you to fall in love with a random person.
I liked this book until the men show up at the villa; I can appreciate how Mrs. Wilkins and Mrs. Arbuthnot have been changed by their time there, but the men just basically show up at the end of the book and suddenly (cue swelling music) IT’S AMORE. Everything is suddenly hunky-dory again between the estranged married couples, although Mr. Wilkins is still steeped in his miserly, ambulance-chasing mentality, and Mr. Arbuthnot originally came not to see his wife, but to make a grab, both personally and professionally, at Lady Caroline Dester the Flapper heiress. And Mrs. Fisher’s icy crotchetiness suddenly melts for, of all people, Mellersh Wilkins, a man who still primarily thinks of her as a walking cash cow for his solicitor firm. Briggs, the villa’s owner and perhaps the most sympathetic of the men, is incredibly fickle. Having come for Rose Arbuthnot, whom he thought to be a widow, he immediately transfers his affections to Lady Caroline once he laid eyes on her supernatural prettiness. And, despite protesting against the unwanted attention from men barely a dozen pages ago, including Briggs, the author tells us, conveniently, that it’s amore for them too.
I guess I just have difficulties with accepting the villa as a sort of deus ex machina for all the characters; or perhaps I was just having a bad day when I finished the book. Or perhaps I’m secretly a repressed housewife who desperately needs a life-restoring, love-enhancing holiday at an impossibly beautiful Italian villa on the Amalfi Coast. Yeah, that’s it. Now I’m going to pester hubby about blowing out our hard-earned nest egg on some charmingly dilapidated pile somewhere sunny in Italy. (less)
"God save us always...from the innocent and the good."
Alden Pyle, a young American newly arrived in war-torn Vietnam, is a force for good. He’s all fo...more"God save us always...from the innocent and the good."
Alden Pyle, a young American newly arrived in war-torn Vietnam, is a force for good. He’s all for preserving freedom and liberty for the suffering masses of Asia, after all --- so goes the then popular domino theory --- if Vietnam goes red, so will Siam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia. He’s also no fan of the Red’s enemy, the French, who are fighting a losing battle for their Indochinese colony. A ‘Third Force’ that is composed of native elements (with a little American help) is Vietnam’s best bet, and Pyle is willing to do anything to help it come into power.
Thomas Fowler, a middle-aged British war journo who’s too jaded to take any side in the conflict, views Pyle’s activist idealism with bemused contempt. Separated from his wife, whom he left in England, he takes a young Vietnamese lover, Phuong. Fowler tells himself that he is under no illusion whatsoever in his relationship with her; she is there to provide for his comforts (“… she was the hiss of steam, the clink of a cup, she was a certain hour of the night, and the promise of rest."), and in return he provides her with the comforts of a Western standard lifestyle. It’s an arrangement, all too common in distant Third World postings, and strictly temporary. He has no plans to ask his wife for a divorce; what would Phuong do in rainy, grey London anyway? However, Phuong has other aspirations. She dreams of a life in the West --- and if her aging lover won’t take her to England, then she’ll go to America instead. Fowler’s contempt for Pyle’s naiveté, both political and romantic, intensifies when Phuong left him for the American. It is so obvious that he is practically considered a main suspect by the Surete when Pyle is found dead not long after.
Despite its espionage trappings, The Quiet American is a morality play, in which all the costs and benefits of a moral decision are so precisely laid up that it’s almost mathematical. Yet, unlike in The Heart of the Matter, another morality play of an almost biblical intensity, the characters are allowed certain shades of ambiguity; they make a deal with the devil and then get on with their compromised lives. The wages of sin now is not necessarily death --- sometimes we weak humans are allowed a little leeway, a little compromise that maybe, somehow, is justifiable in the greater scheme of things.
But Greene’s book is not just a morality tale. It is also a vividly rendered, unsentimental evocation of Vietnam in the 1950’s. Not just the part that was at war against the French (although there is plenty about it too), but also the country that hosts the Cao Dai church, a French planter with an extensive Victorian erotica collection and a Chinese-Vietnamese junk dealer who is also a secret Vietminh agent. These journalistic vignettes constitutes half the pleasure of reading this book for me, the other half constitutes of reading about moral dilemmas that are summed up in angsty, exquisitely phrased aphorisms that perhaps contains more than a kernel of truth ("The hurt is in the act of possession: we are too small in mind and body to possess another person without pride or to be possessed without humiliation."). Plenty to ruminate about long after the book is closed. (less)
Dejima, 1799. The Napoleonic Wars are raging in Europe, changing political loyalties seemingly overnight. The venerable VOC is teetering on the brink...moreDejima, 1799. The Napoleonic Wars are raging in Europe, changing political loyalties seemingly overnight. The venerable VOC is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Dutch East Indies is about to fall into British hands. Japan has been isolated from the world for more than a hundred years.
This book seems like a conventional historical fiction at first --- the premise sounds similar to An Insular Possession. And hasn’t Japan been done to death with Shogun and Memoirs of a Geisha? But right on from the second sentence, in which “a cacophony of frogs detonates” in a Nagasaki rice field, we are given an inkling that this is not the same old thing. Mitchell retains the full trappings of the genre: the meticulous research*, regurgitated through action and dialogue, the setting up of an exotic location, the gruesome surgeries, period stereotypes, and even a farcical incident involving a particularly embarrassing medical demonstration. But it isn’t a James Clavell, or even a Patrick O’Brian (however, more on this later).
The narrative in the first part, which takes place almost exclusively on Dejima, the claustrophobic, man-made island where Jacob de Zoet and his fellow traders are quartered/detained, is mainly from the point of view of the foreigners, Dutch, Prussian, Irish and Indonesian. The Japanese characters speak in a stilted language and their motives are for the most part seemed inscrutable. Haiku-like snippets pepper the narrative, and at their best they work like dots in a pointillist painting. De Zoet is being taken to Nagasaki to bow before the Shogun’s Magistrate:
“There is a row of stone idols: twists of papers tied to a plum tree.
The palanquins pass over an embanked river: the water stinks.
Wistaria in bloom foams over a crumbling wall.”
There are other narrative quirks that will either astound or exasperate, depending on your literary taste, but I love them. Not every single one of them works, but they are often startling, refreshingly inventive and kept me on my reading toes.
Mitchell is also an accomplished ventriloquist, with an exquisite ear for dialogue, and a keen understanding of the perils (and sometimes unintentional hilarity) of the interpreter’s trade, no doubt drawn from his personal experience in Japan. I like how he subtly illuminates the different points of view, Japanese and foreign, and shows us how much is lost in translation, intentionally or otherwise. This fascination with languages and words, especially the hybrid language that different peoples invented to communicate with each other, reminds me of Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies --- although it must be said that Ghosh’s linguistic experiments is much more extreme than Mitchell’s.
The first part anchors the story firmly on the bedrock of history, or at least the illusion of it. Yet just as you begin to get comfortable, the story morphs into a macabre thriller replete with sinister monks and sword-wielding samurais. And Mitchell does this effortlessly, changing gear with a sure hand, and we are in for a genuinely thrilling page-turner. Again, he retains the full conventions of the genre, and somehow even the most fantastical elements don’t jar with the earlier, more realistic tone of the story.
The third act is a fictionalized account of the Nagasaki Harbor Incident, plus the denouement of the second part, cleverly incorporated into the historical events that happened afterwards. Once again, the story takes another turn, this time into the realm of nautical historical fiction, with a nod to Patrick O’Brian’s The Complete Aubrey/Maturin Novels.
Mitchell dons an impressive number of literary hats here, but what ultimately makes this book so awesome is its wonderfully rich and inventive prose, its moving evocation of love and loss, loyalty and betrayal, and above all, the palpable sense of the mystery and ephemerality of human existence that infuses it.
“The truth of a myth…is not in its words but its patterns.”
1. The slave Weh’s narrative
If Mitchell intends the slave Weh to come from the Indonesian island of Weh, he should not have made him a kava-drinking animist. Weh islanders were Muslim Acehnese and Minangs, not animists, and they most surely didn’t drink kava (which is a Polynesian instead of an Indonesian habit). Perhaps Mitchell was thinking of Nias, another nearby island whose inhabitants were animists well into the 20th century. And they didn’t drink Kava either. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weh_Island}
2. The use of the word ‘doubloon’
“…mestizos and doubloons; men fathered by Europeans.”
According to the online Merriam-Webster dictionary, doubloon means “an old gold coin of Spain and Spanish America” and not a half-caste (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictio...). Perhaps Mitchell (or de Zoet) was thinking of ‘octoroons’ or ‘quadroons’, which are terms for mixed-race individuals.
3. The original language of the Psalms.
“How did you smuggle ashore this rattle-bag of uneven translations from the Aramaic?”
The erudite, multilingual Dr. Marinus seems to think that de Zoet’s psalms were a translation from Aramaic. I’m no biblical scholar, but I’m certain that they were originally written in Hebrew, not Aramaic. Or perhaps Mitchell wants to stress the point that Marinus, being a non-believer, is ignorant of biblical history? (less)
Taken before the Intelligence and Security Committee Tuesday 15 July 1958
Mr. Paul Anderson, in the Chair Mr. Jonathan Blakeley Mr. Richard Cunningham QC
Witnesses: MR. JAMES WORMOLD, O.B.E., former SIS operative in Havana, Cuba, 1955-1957; and MRS. BEATRICE WORMOLD (NEE SEVERN), formerly a secretary at the SIS headquarters.
Q1 Chairman: Mr. and Mrs. Wormold, may I welcome you to this hearing, which purpose is to examine the veracity of the contents of Dossier No. 1801 dated 24 October 1957 (hereinafter referred to as the Dossier), issued by the SIS or otherwise popularly known as the MI6. This Committee hopes that both of you will be able to shed light on certain events described in the Dossier, which have been challenged by other sources. Everything that transpires in this hearing shall be treated as a matter of national security and be held in the strictest confidence. Let me start with the first question: Mr. Wormold, is it true that you were recruited by an SIS agent, who went under the name of Hawthorne, in Havana during the winter of 1955?
Mr. Wormold: It is true, sir.
Q2 Chairman: Please describe the recruitment process.
Mr. Wormold: I was drinking with my old friend Dr. Hassellbacher at Sloppy Joe’s. Agent Hawthorne was there. He corralled me into the Gents and suggested to me that I should join the Secret Service.
Q3 Chairman: Any particular reason why the deed was done in the Gents?
Mr. Wormold: Uh --- I don’t know, sir. He said that it’s more secure in case anyone barged in. He kept the tap running while speaking to me, to confuse the mike, he said. I said I didn’t want the job, but he insisted. Then he shoved me into a closet and walked away.
Q4 Mr. Cunningham: Did he give you any reason for your recruitment?
Mr. Wormold: Yes, sir. He said that I was a patriotic Englishman who had been living in Havana for years, besides being a respected member of the European Traders Association. He also said that they must have their man in Havana, and that submarines need fuel and dictators drift together. I didn’t quite catch his drift then, sir.
Q5 Mr. Cunningham: What kind of business did you run in Havana, Mr. Wormold?
Mr. Wormold: I ran a vacuum cleaner shop, sir. We carry the finest, most modern machines such as the Atomic Pile Suction Cleaner, the Midget Make-Easy Air Powered Suction Small Home Cleaner and the Turbo, which is the no. 1 brand in Cuba for four years running. We are Phastkleaners’ sole agent for the whole of Cuba.
Q6 Mr. Blakeley: The Dossier describes you as a “well-connected merchant king with a substantial machinery importing business.” How many persons were employed in your business, Mr. Wormold?
Mr. Wormold: One, sir. It was just a small store.
Mr. Blakeley: Interesting. The Dossier also describes you as “stable”, and “uninterested in women.”
Mrs. Wormold: (snickers)
Chairman: Mrs. Wormold, we respectfully ask you not to speak until requested to do so.
Q6 Mr. Cunningham: Mr. Wormold, you initially refused the job, why did you change your mind?
Mr. Wormold: It was because of my daughter, Milly. She was just sixteen at that time. Convent schoolgirl, very good girl. She wanted to buy a horse and rode in the Country Club. The horse alone costed 300 pounds, sir, and the Country Club was even more expensive. Not to say of the bridles, saddles and riding lessons. And I wanted to have enough money to retire in England and take her with me. There was this native person called Capt. Segura who had designs on her.
Q7 Mr. Blakeley: Isn’t he the head of police in Vedado?
Mr. Wormold: The one and the same. Do you know what people in Havana call him, sir? The Red Vulture. He tortured prisoners. He had a wallet made of human skin. This person wanted to marry my daughter. You see, I had to get her out of Cuba. Pronto!
Mrs. Wormold: He is such a good father!
Chairman:: Mrs. Wormold ---
Mrs. Wormold: Not to speak until spoken to. Understood.
Q8 Mr. Cunningham: The Dossier records that you received a lump sum payment of 1,000 pounds in April 1956. Could you confirm what the funds were used for?
Mr. Wormold: To join the Country Club and recruit several sub-agents.
Q9 Mr. Cunningham: Engineer Cifuentes, Professor Luis Sanchez and Lopez. Who’s Lopez?
Mr. Wormold: My employee at the store. He wanted an additional 25 pesos per month. The other two names were from the Country Club’s roster. I had to justify the payments.
Q 10 Mr. Cunningham: I see. And the transfer of 1,500 dollars in June 1956 was for what purpose?
Mr. Wormold: To procure intelligence reports and drawings of the secret military installations in the mountains of Oriente Province.
Chairman: These are the drawings, gentlemen. According to the Dossier, these depict the parts of a massive weapon of mass destruction, very possibly nuclear.
Mrs. Wormold: Actually, those were the drawings of the parts of the Atomic Pile Suction vacuum cleaner.
Q11 Chairman: Is that true, Mr. Wormold?
Mr. Wormold: Uh yes, sir.
Q12 Chairman: Who made them, Mr. Wormold?
Mr. Wormold: I did, sir. I took the Atomic Pile apart and drew the parts. Then I altered the scale to make them seem gigantic.
Mr. Blakeley: He had even drew a little man with a bowler hat next to the drawings --- see?
Chairman: How did these absurd drawings got through the experts at the SIS?
Mr. Blakeley: To be fair, this particular drawing here does look like some kind of a massive cannon bore.
Mrs. Wormold: It’s a drawing of the Atomic Pile’s nozzle. I love it that Jim could be so devious!
Q13 Chairman: Since you seem to be exceedingly eager to speak, Mrs. Wormold, let’s commence with your part. Who sent you to Havana?
Mrs. Wormold: Miss Jenkinson, sir. The head of the secretarial pool at the SIS HQ. Agent Hawthorne specifically requested a Spanish-speaking secretary for the assignment.
Q14 Chairman: Did you speak Spanish? Did you have any other abilities that might have been useful there?
Mrs. Wormold: No Spanish, but I’m half French. At the SIS, they think that all Latin tongues are the same anyway. I could encode and do microphotography. I also have a good knowledge of electrodynamics.
Q15 Mr. Blakeley: What’s that?
Mrs. Wormold: Let’s just say that if you have any trouble with your fuse box at home, you can give me a call.
Mr. Blakeley: Er --- all right.
Q16 Mr. Cunningham: What happened when you arrived in Havana? Did Mr. Wormold’s activities as an agent seemed suspicious to you from the start?
Mrs. Wormold: We first met at the Copacabana --- it was so romantic --- all those palm trees, the Parisian songs, the cabaret…
Chairman: Please answer Mr. Cunningham’s questions, Mrs. Wormold.
Mrs. Wormold: Where were we? Oh yes, I was not suspicious at first. I thought that he was kind of bumbling, but what a sweet man! And then someone shot at Cifuentes and everything started to unravel. He took me to the Shanghai Theater to warn Teresa ---
Mr. Blakeley: One of the alleged sub-agents, a “nude dancer who is the mistress of both the Minister of Mines and the Director of Post & Telegraph.”
Mrs. Wormold: That’s the girl. We got her into Jim’s car and we rode to Professor Sanchez’s house to warn him too ---
Q17 Mr. Blakeley: Is this the incident described in the police report attached to the Dossier, in which Mr. Wormold was arrested for driving around with a naked girl and breaking into Professor Sanchez’s home?
Mrs. Wormold: Yes. It was quite funny, actually. It was a total farce. I wished that he had just told me, though. No need for all that merry go round --- right, darling?
Mr. Blakeley: Apparently, there were other murky incidents after that --- it’s rather difficult to understand what actually happened from the Dossier. But at the end Mr. Wormold successfully eliminated several suspected enemy operatives while providing us with an invaluable list of foreign agents.
Mr. Cunningham: May I point out that Mr. Wormold could not be charged under the Official Secrets Act as he hadn’t actually given any secrets away? He invented secrets, and such an act is not covered by the OSA.
Chairman: I think that I can speak for this Committee --- on the balance, Mr. and Mrs. Wormold’s actions had brought us more benefits than disadvantages, although it must be said that we have some concerns about the sheer amount of invention that was involved. But such is the nature of intelligence work. It is in our national interest that we concur with the conclusion of the SIS’ internal inquiry: Mr. Wormold deserves his O.B.E., and Mrs. Wormold does not deserve to be sent to Jakarta.
Mr. Blakeley and Mr. Cunningham: We agree.
Mr. Wormold: May I say something, sir?
Chairman: Certainly, Mr. Wormold.
Mr. Wormold: This is the lesson that I’ve learned from all of this. The cruel come and go like cities and thrones and powers. They have no permanence. But the clown whom I had seen last year with my daughter at the circus --- that clown is permanent, for his act never change.That is the way to live: the clown is unaffected by the vagaries of public and the enormous discoveries of the great.
Chairman: Umm, yes. Quite an interesting sentiment. Is that all?
Mr. Wormold: One more: thou shalt not invent a weapon of mass destruction where there is none.
Chairman: I agree. May I thank you on behalf of the Committee? You both have been most helpful.
What I learned from this book (in no particular order):
1. There is hardly such a thing as a French waiter in Paris: the waiters are all Italian and Ge...moreWhat I learned from this book (in no particular order):
1. There is hardly such a thing as a French waiter in Paris: the waiters are all Italian and German. They just pretend to be French to be able to affect that certain hauteur and charge you exorbitant prices for that mediocre Boeuf Bourgignon.
2. Some of them are spies. Waitering is a common profession for a spy to adopt. It is also a popular profession among AWOL ex-soldiers and wannabe snobs.
3. Real scullery maids do “curse like a scullion” (hey, that’s a Hamlet quotation!). No doubt Shakespeare had watched a real-life Elizabethan scullion at work.
4. Men cooks are preferred to women, not because of any superiority in technique, but for their punctuality in delivering orders. The only woman cook featured in the book has nervous breakdowns at exactly 12 pm, 6 pm and 9 pm every day, although it must be noted that they are caused by circumstances that are beyond her control.
5. A French cook will spit in the soup --- that is, if he is not going to drink it himself. He is an artist, but his art is not cleanliness. To a certain extent he is even dirty because he is an artist, for food, to look smart, needs dirty treatment.
6. A steak will not be handled with a fork: the cook will just pick it up in his fingers and slap it down, run his thumb round the dish and lick it to taste the gravy. He will further press it lovingly with his fat, pink fingers, every one of which he has licked a hundred times that morning. When he is satisfied, he takes a cloth and wipes his fingerprints from the dish, and hands it to the waiter.
7. And the waiter, of course, will dip HIS fingers into the gravy --- his nasty, greasy fingers which he is forever running through his briliantined hair.
8. The scullery is the filthiest part of all: it is nothing unusual for a waiter to wash his face in the water in which clean crockery is rinsing.
9. The Plongeur is the lowest kitchen worker in a French restaurant who deals with the dirtiest, sweatiest work available. However, he is allowed two liters of wine a day, because otherwise, he will steal three. Everyone seems to work faster when partially drunk anyway.
10. A bum’s life, whether in Paris or London, is a real BUMMER.
George Orwell went slumming in Paris and London, and the result is probably one of the best-written accounts of the bumming life ever penned. However, don’t read it if you are sensitive to pungent, unsparing descriptions of filthy kitchens, foul body odors, bug-infested beds and other unsavory aspects of a life gone to the dogs. (less)