Country Focus: Malaysia
The Gift of Rain
Tan Twan Eng
Weinstein Books, 2008.
Acclaim: Nominated for the Man Booker Prize
To make a long story short: On the eve of World War II, sixteen-year-old trading scion Philip Hutton becomes an aikijutsu student and friend of the Japanese Deputy-Counsel, Hayato Endo. The biracial Hutton, who had just begun to cultivate his relationships with his British half-siblings and Chinese grandfather, now finds himself being castigated on both sides for fraternizing with the enemy. When Japanese forces take Malaysia and Hutton realizes that he has been used as an unwitting spy, he starts off on a course of action that he hopes will save his family and friends and redeem himself.
My opinion: The Gift of Rain is both a coming of age story and a story of forgiveness, but Eng couldn’t make either one work for me. When I wasn’t being nauseated by Hutton’s puppy-love for Endo, I was being outraged by his ability to routinely stand by while innocents were being tortured.
A note on Aikido: The Gift of Rain is the first novel I’ve come across that claims to feature the relatively unknown martial art of Aikido, a discipline I’ve been practicing for several years. Boy, was I disappointed in Eng’s representation. Endo actually teaches Hutton aikijutsu, the more brutal precursor to modern Aikido, which is also known the “the art of harmony”. Hutton is definitely more action hero than peacenik; Eng (who claims to have a shodan rank in Aikido) writes in his Author’s Note that “…I should make it clear that the consequences of the use of [O Sensei’s] techniques in this story in no way reflect his philosophy.” Why did Eng bother to write about Aikido if he was going to ignore its core beliefs? It’s the same as if he wrote about a student of Gandhi who decides to protest with a machine gun. Another strike against this book.
The armchair travel experience: I didn’t know the first thing about Malaysia including its location, but Eng filled me in on the basics of Malaysian history up to 1945, the melting pot of the Chinese, British, Malays and Indians who are its inhabitants, and the country’s relationships with Singapore, Britain, Japan and China.
In my book (or, what Malaysia means to me and maybe you, too)
Touching the Void
Skyscrapers draw attention to themselves, including mine. For six years (1998-2004), Kuala Lumpur boasted the world’s tallest buildings – the Petronas Twin Towers. Standing 1,483 feet from base to spire, the towers are linked together by a skybridge at the 41st and 42nd floors. Here’s a heady comment from César Pelli, chief architect of the towers:
“According to Lao Tse, the reality of a hollow object is in the void and not in the walls that define it. He was speaking, of course, of spiritual realities. These are the realities also of the Petronas Towers. The power of the void is increased and made more explicit by the pedestrian bridge that … with its supporting structure creates a portal to the sky … a door to the infinite.”
Pelli might want to ask French climber Alain “Spiderman” Robert his opinion of the void, considering that on September 1, 2009, Robert got very intimate with all that empty space when he climbed to the top of the towers barefoot and without any safety device in just over two hours. 88 stories in the air, he whipped out a Malaysian flag in celebration.
I was surprised to find out that Michelle Yeoh, who is well-known for performing her own fight scenes and most of her own stunts in action movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, was forced to abandon her original dream of being a prima ballerina due to a back injury. The Malaysian actress wields swords, kicks and punches with both athleticism and grace despite having had no formal martial arts training. After winning the Miss Malaysia beauty pageant and representing her country at the 1983 Miss World pageant, Yeoh met Jackie Chan and began a physically demanding acting career that has included a ruptured artery in her leg, a dislocated shoulder, a cracked rib, and burns.