The Sultan and the Governor

In Oct 2016 I travelled to North Maluku in Indonesia. Two islands there, Ternate and Tidore, are the most fascinating places I’ve been to in Indonesia. Not exactly tourist hubs, I had some trouble getting around with my basic Indonesian. The main aim was to climb the summits of these two volcanic islands. I managed one but not the other. Out of the material I gathered on the trip and subsequent reading, I wrote and sold a travel article, and published a short story. There is no direct link to the online short story, so I have polished it, renamed it, added some photos and posted it here. 

View of Tidore from Moya village on Ternate. Moya is the starting point for the hike up Gamalama, the volcanic peak of the island.

Ternate is one of a string of volcanic islands just north of the equator in the Indonesian province of Maluku Utara. Before the Portuguese reached them in the early sixteenth century, Europeans had been searching for these islands for centuries because they were the source of the then precious spice: cloves.

The Sultan of Ternate allowed the newly arrived Portuguese to build a fort on his island. He was ever in need of allies as Tidore, home of a rival sultanate, was a short boat ride away. The two islands had been enemies since time immemorial, locked in a battle of mimetic rivalry: vying for the riches of the spice trade and land for growing food on the large island of Halmahera. Further afield they sought tribute from Sulawesi and Papua. Malukans believed maintaining the balance between the two islands was important to keep their world healthy. Ternate was always slightly ahead in the game, a stronger older brother, but Tidore, the cunning younger brother, had its moments. 

Tidore featured a nearly perfect cone named Kiematabu while Ternate’s Gamalama peak was asymmetrical but no less beautiful. From time to time a Portuguese climbed Gamalama to scout for incoming ships. At the summit, there was a two-hundred-metre high hill of scoria rock containing a deep, sulphur belching, crater. From the crater’s edge, early morning before the clouds rolled in, the view of the other volcanic spice islands and Halmahera to the east was almost worth the arduous journey from Lisbon. The rocky hill was surrounded by a plateau covered in long grass. And then, after descending steep slopes covered in spiky rattan choked jungle, you came to the clove tree plantations and finally mountain villages.

The Portuguese wanted the locals of Ternate to sell cloves exclusively to them. However, the Sultan’s acquiescence to this demand was only of a Machiavellian nature. Why would he stop trading with the Arabs, Javanese and Chinese Sanglays from the Philippines who had been coming to the island for so long? 

By 1570 the Portuguese presence on Ternate was not only limited to soldiers of (mis)fortune – priests had set up shop too. The Jesuits urged the Portuguese Governor, Mesquita, to do something about Sultan Hairun selling cloves to Javanese traders. Hairun was breaking the agreed-upon monopoly. These priests hated the Sultan, as he backed Islamists who blocked their proselytizing efforts. At this stage, Islam had a weak grip on the common people of Maluku and the priests were hopeful of gaining many converts to Christianity.

Cloves drying, Gurabunga village, Tidore.

Mezquita took action. He sent a force of twenty men to the far side of the island, where they burned Javanese trading ships. Some poorly armed Javanese tried to stop the Portuguese and were made mincemeat. To escape responsibility for violence we say it’s enough never to be the first to do violence. No one ever sees themselves as casting the first stone. Hairun had thrown the first rock as far as the Portuguese were concerned. 

Sultan Hairun was furious. After several scuffles between the two sides, Mezquita invited the Sultan to the fort for reconciliation. Hairun was no newbie to political intrigue having been held prisoner in the fort at various times. He’d visited the Portuguese Governor-General in Goa, usually wore Portuguese clothes and spoke the language – none of these things had saved him. Mezquita managed to separate the sovereign from his bodyguard and, in an act of bad political manoeuvring, stabbed Hairun to death. The Sultan had two servants beside him. An old man, holding an umbrella for the Sultan, tried to defend his lord and got stabbed himself. The other was a hunchback girl carrying the Sultan’s betel nut – she got away unharmed.

Hairun’s bodyguard broke out of the fort and spread the news. Chaos ensued around the island. Mourners went contrary: they paddled their kora-kora with the stern facing backwards, wore headdresses around their necks and played the flutes with their noses. The Sultan’s soldiers laid siege to the fort, yelling for Mezquita to be turned over to them.

Inside the fort there was rebellion, Mezquita was stripped of his title and sneaked outside at night. He was sent back to Malacca on a supply ship that’d been waiting offshore. When the locals learnt that Mesquita was gone they lifted the siege. Instead, they focused on guarding the two sailing ships at anchor nearby, so there was no escape for the Portuguese.

The new Sultan, Babullah, was a stronger, more ruthless character than his father and the people loved him for it. What a mistake to murder the old man, who at least had been somewhat malleable. Babullah traded for muskets, gunpowder and coats of mail. The crimson and purple Indian cloth his father had loved could wait. Crimson had reminded the old man of fresh mace – the covering from nutmeg seeds. In the name of Islam, Babullah was going to reestablish local dominance over the spice trade by driving the Portuguese out. The Sultan made sure the rice paddies around the fortress became a muddy wasteland and supplies were cut off – the battle of Ternate had begun.

Mace drying, Gurabunga village, Tidore.

Vitor Paulo Rocha became the new Portuguese governor. A man of some ability, it was a shame he became a leader in such a dire situation. A better choice than Mesquita, nevertheless he had a shadowy past. He’d been accused of corruption back in Portugal but was granted a pardon on the condition that he joined an expedition to the Indies. They said men who went to Goa were fortune seekers and those in Malacca adventurers. To end up in Ternate, that furthest Portuguese outpost, you had to have done something criminal.  

A few months after the assassination, food became a problem for the Portuguese. In the fort, there were a lot of cloves and other spices, but very little else. The men subsisted on sago bread so hard it needed to be dipped in water. The days of trading with village women for jackfruit and bananas were over. Going out to collect water was a daily trial. At first, the locals just took potshots. But then one day, the Sultan’s soldiers attacked a party getting water from a brackish stream. One man received a deep sword cut to the leg – the blade was poisoned and he died in agony. Rocha then ordered that every time they left the fort the men must wear helmets, breastplates and quilted leggings. This command was unpopular as that gear was almost unbearable to wear in the tropical heat. The next supply ship from Malacca did not appear when due. Rocha knew there could be many reasons for this.

Every evening Rocha did his rounds – checking the guards upon the turrets were in place. The other men went to sleep early inside the stone barracks, Morpheus was their only comforter. They were out of liquor and the men had never taken to chewing betel nut. Sometimes Rocha came across Padre Goncalves pacing about inside the defensive walls. The priest genuflected incessantly as he walked. Rocha knew he didn’t do this from religious fervour. The truth was the priest’s mind had gone from being holed up in the fort too long. Goncalves had been a restless man, roaming the world, and of late the island, incessantly looking for converts. Now he was just another grey beard longing for Europe.

Rocha had seen something similar to Goncalves’ compulsive genuflecting with an Indian Tiger in Goa. The beast was kept in a large cage and would pace back and forth within, using exactly the same swing of the head on every turn. The owner of the tiger eventually couldn’t bear the dead-eyed pacing and had it made into a rug. Rocha had given up confessing some time ago. Confessing to Goncalves was like throwing your sins into the abyss to multiply. The other Jesuits in the fort weren’t much saner, men who had wanted to escape life by taking priestly vows – instead they had been plunged right into the middle of things and suffered accordingly.

Gamalama viewed from a street near Fort Tolokko

Rocha thought about their chances of making it off Ternate. Even if they defeated the men guarding their ships, they would need time for repairs to make the vessels seaworthy. This would allow the Sultan a chance to regroup. What awaited them in Malacca anyway? Chains for some disobedience he was not yet aware of? Would they get shipwrecked on an island with no water? Or have the bad luck to land in Mindanao and become prisoners of the Castilians? There were thousands of possibilities. In theory, they were the glory of Portugal, conquering faraway lands, spreading the faith and making the king rich through opening new trade routes. In reality, Islamic traders had arrived first and embedded themselves, and the majority of Christian adventurers who set out for the Indies came to a bad end.

The people of Ternate kept up the pressure until the Portuguese garrison was reduced to a state beyond miserable. Eventually, the Sultan offered boats so that they could leave and Rocha accepted. The locals then occupied the fort themselves, Rocha knew that wouldn’t last for long, because the island was cursed with wealth. If not the Portuguese, some other group would arrive to make trouble. The Portuguese managed to creep back into the region and have a presence over the water in Tidore but they never returned to Ternate.

Scene from monument at Fort Kastela, the defeated Portuguese leave Ternate.

Against the odds, in 1577 Rocha made it back to Portugal. He became a fisherman, one of the better results out of any of the Portuguese adventurers from that age of exploration. When out fishing, Rocha had the habit of looking back at the skyline of Lisbon. He knew the beautiful palaces and churches he saw had been made a reality by distinct garrisons of criminals in miserable forts, trading for the spices that Europe was crazy about. Not only did cloves do simple things like preserve meat and sweeten the breath, but they also performed miracles – for instance, if mixed with oil, they could warn off the plague.

As a fisherman, Rocha’s days were of hard labour casting and pulling nets. A stark contrast to those idle tropical days, when his men did not care about life or death and slept as much as they could. In 1577 Rocha was not yet old, he got married a year after his return. Given his new way of making a living, he became a pescatarian, but his wife occasionally liked to cook meat. That was fine, but he begged her never to use cloves as a flavouring. The slightest whiff of that substance reminded him of the fort…the sweet fragrance of cloves contaminated by gunpowder and sweat.

A Review of Buenos Aires Triad

A review from Carlos Hughes, author of White Monkey:

What’s an honest man to do for a living when they live in a country where inflation rises up by 20% overnight and the price of bread becomes an expensive commodity? This is the dilemma of the main protagonist ‘Lucas’ in the wonderfully written crime noir novel ‘Buenos Aires Triad’ by debutant author F. E. Beyer.

Beyer certainly knows Buenos Aires and ‘Porteno’ culture and that is evident throughout the book, Lucas is a man with a conflicted moral code in a similar vein to the character ‘Juan’ (played by Gaston Pauls) in Fabian Bielinsky’s wonderful film ‘Nine Queens’ a decent man having gone through bad circumstances beyond his control trying to adapt to the new realities surrounding him in a big and unforgiving city – handed down a skill of fixing watches from his deceased father, he goes from selling counterfeit watches to bigger and more serious crimes which involves working for an organised crime syndicate which ends up changing his life.

The story within ‘Buenos Aires Triad’ is an up-to-date tale of an immigrant society where people come from all over the world to try their luck and make their way, the Venezuelans, Bolivians, Senegalese and the Chinese have now replaced the ‘Turcos’, ‘Tanos’, ‘Rusos’ and ‘Gallegos’ and make this tale an exciting and fast paced read that anyone who has lived in Buenos Aires for any period of time would instantly recognise and understand.

I read this novel within the day and enjoyed it a lot – well written, fast paced and a decent smooth read from the first page until the last. A worthy five stars and recommended to anyone who has spent any time in Argentina or Latin America though I am sure it would be enjoyed by everyone who likes a decent, modern crime noir story.

Teacher, We Girls!

In the animated film “The Swallows of Kabul” the Taliban force a man to pray in a mosque and his wife must wait outside in the hot sun wearing a suffocating cover-all burqa. We see the world as she does: through the grill of a veil. And we hear her laboured breathing as she nearly faints from the heat. In “Teacher, We Girls”, author Katherine Dolan relates a similar experience waiting outside a restaurant. Her husband is inside ordering takeaway, but as a woman, she’s not allowed in the door. She stands sweltering in a full-body abaya but thankfully finds some shade. This first-hand account brought home to me one way hardline Islamic nations can be uncomfortable for women. On occasion, I’ve seen women wearing black abayas or burqas that cover them head to toe, but I’d never really considered what it felt like to wear one.

Katherine Dolan and her husband John spent a year teaching in Saudi Arabia – a challenging mission at the best of times. Making matters worse, after arriving they are sent to the small, ultra-conservative Najran in the south of the country. This memoir is a searing criticism of the Saudi oppression of women. It also portrays other head-scratching aspects of life in the kingdom. Chief among these is the Saudis death-wish style of driving. Pedestrians take their lives into their hands every time they cross the main street in Najran. The Dolans weekend trip away in a hired car becomes the stuff of nightmares as drivers speed down the highway with their headlights off at night.

“John’s knuckles were white from gripping the wheel, and he kept glancing at the rear vision window with a hunted look.”

Katherine could not share the driving with her husband, women were not allowed to drive in Saudi until 2018. And so it is comical when she teaches her students the vocabulary for the parts of a car. The girls in her class complain that the activity is not relevant to them. However, the textbook must be followed, teaching the girls other content is forbidden. Especially anything to do with sex. Why do the Saudis keep their woman under such tight control? It’s only one interpretation of the Quran that dictates this. Is it a fear of female sexuality? Outright misogyny? Or a misguided attempt to protect? Whatever the reason, when sexuality is repressed and pushed underground, usually there will be some unhealthy consequences.

Spending one year in Saudi Arabia, Dolan can’t give us all the answers. But she took careful notice of what was said by the women she worked with – generally Muslims from other Arab nations or Asia somewhat adapted to life in Saudi. While some writers may have used exposition to explain life in Najran, Dolan uses the staffroom conversations – a sound writing technique. One of her colleagues, Dama from Jordan, gives us an idea of just how much power men have over their female relatives.

“In Saudi Arabia now, it is forbidden for a girl even to meet with a man who is not related to her. In 2007, a man murdered his daughter because she chatted with a man on Facebook. According to the law, it was OK for him to murder her.”

This is also a story of English teachers abroad. Typically books on this topic feature some serious oddballs – often they are alcoholic – but that’s not an easy thing to be in Saudi, where alcohol is illegal. I wasn’t disappointed though. At one stage Fleur, an obese blond woman, turns up at school and starts talking to Dolan about the homosexual love affair of a prince and how her friend worked as a prostitute in the capital, Riyadh. Dolan cringes as she knows the other teachers are listening. The filter-less Fleur does not last long and gets fired. Fernando, a teacher who works with John, also provides some humour with his wry comments on the foolishness of certain colleagues, referring to one as nuttier than a squirrel’s pantry.

At the street level, things are hot and filthy, full of stray cats, rats, and depressed Asian immigrant labour. Dolan is forced to see a lot of this because the city is bereft of public transport. As she walks, she is watched by eyes that disapprove of a woman out alone. I did question why Katherine Dolan went to Saudi Arabia in the first place. She did seem well informed before going and it’s not a place you’d think a person with strong feminist ideals would want to go to. At one stage, she admits she thought wearing the abaya would give her a kind of desirable anonymity. Whatever whim or financial goal took her to Saudi, the production of this book made it worth it. I’m surprised no publishing house in her native New Zealand took it on. It’s well-written, very informative – and while sometimes grim, not without its lighter moments.

The Xiezhi Triad in Argentina

Photo: 佳源 Jia Yuan Good Source Supermarket, San Telmo, Buenos Aires.

A few years ago, the police in Buenos Aires busted a Chinese mafia group known as the Pixiu Triad. I wrote about this group and its activities in my article published in the LA Review of Books, China Channel. Inspired by those real events, I chose the xiezhi to be the symbol of the Chinese triad gang that plays a central role in my crime novel ‘Buenos Aires Triad’.

Pixiu? Xiezhi? What the hell are those?

Both are mythical Chinese beasts.

The Pixiu: The legend goes that Taoist masters sealed off the rectum of the pixiu so that when it eats gold, silver and precious stones – its favoured diet – it takes them in but doesn’t pass them. Therefore, the pixiu is a symbol of wealth generation and an appropriate mascot for a criminal gang. Chinese supermarkets in Buenos Aires protected by the Pixiu Triad apparently have a poster of a pixiu on the wall. I never saw such a poster.

The Xiezhi: These creatures look pretty much like Chinese lions. They have the head of a lion, the body of a dog and the claws of a dragon. A symbol of honesty, the xiezhi has a horn on its head for butting liars. Is it a good mascot for a criminal gang? Well, maybe for a boss looking to promote loyalty among their followers. The bronze statue of a xiezhi at the Forbidden City in Beijing is the most famous representation of this creature.

A Chino in San Telmo

The photo at the top of this blog post shows the front of the Jia Yuan ‘chino’ in the touristic neighbourhood of San Telmo in Buenos Aires. In Argentina, a Chinese supermarket – supermercado chino, súper chino, argenchino or even just chino – is not a store catering to Asian expats. The target market of these shops is the general population. In addition to several aisles of food and alcohol, there is usually a counter to buy meat, cheese and cold cuts, and a fruit and vegetable stand. An Argentinian might be behind the meat counter, a Bolivian weighing the vegetables and a Chinese attending the till.

Photo: The sticker on the Jia Yuan supermarket sign.

What is interesting about this chino in San Telmo is the sticker over the S in the supermercado sign. The sticker features the Argentine and Chinese flags and a bird’s head flanked by the characters: 山鹰. The translation is ‘mountain eagle’. Now the ‘Mountain Eagle Group’ could be legitimate or are they a rival of the Pixiu Triad? I haven’t been able to find any information on them.

Of all the things to do in San Telmo – I might be nuts concentrating on a bog-standard supermarket. Here in New Zealand, I don’t take photos of the takeaway fish n’ chip joints with Chinese characters on the frontage. However, I never heard of triads extorting money from these places. And being in a foreign country sometimes the mundane is interesting because you don’t fully understand what’s going on. You need to fill in the gaps for yourself – and this can be a starting point for creativity.

A Certain Kind of Power

‘A Certain Kind of Power’ is an entertaining dissection of corruption, in which Australian author Ryan Butta recreates an Argentina of scandals and cloak and dagger moves. Our guide in the county’s capital, Buenos Aires, is Mike Costello, a jaded American corporate spy. An aging one-time army man, Mike has been in Argentina too long for his own good and has a love/hate relationship with Buenos Aires.

“Regardless of her slow decay, Buenos Aires radiated a beauty and an arrogance in the face of the inevitable that bewitched Mike. He admired the city’s refusal to give in, but he would listen to her lies no more.”

Mike knows what goes on beyond the surface and that makes him useful to other foreigners who turn up in Argentina without a clue. The book starts with Mike going to a football game in Lanus, a gritty district to the south of the Capital Federal. The game ends in a riot and the police, paid off by the hooligans, do nothing to stop it. We don’t return to Lanus, Mike lives in upmarket Recoleta and deals with executives, government officials and embassy staff – but they too turn out to be corrupt.

The main plot revolves around MinEx, a British company hoping to set up a mining operation in Córdoba and build a railway to move product to the coast. The Argentine government lends MinEx one hundred and fifty million dollars to start the project. The problem is they insist MinEx uses local contractors at grossly inflated prices. MinEx executive Simon Quinn is a hothead with no clue how to handle the situation. Enter Mike, recommended to Simon as a man who can help by Alex Hammond from the British embassy. Mike in turn gets his information from a shadowy local figure known as the doctor. A number of twists and turns and dead bodies follow and Mike begins to figure out what’s going on like the protagonist in a detective or spy novel would.

As they sit in various bars and cafes, Mike recounts for Simon a lot of Argentina’s recent history – minimally fictionalised by Butta. This is interesting but slows the novel down. Butta has obviously waded through the political stories in many editions of newspapers Clarín and La Nación. In these pages scandals come and go at an alarming rate. Nobody can keep up.

Not set in an exact historical moment (but 2010 is about the best fit), a figure like the late Néstor Kirchner is president of Butta’s Argentina. The recounting of the saga of Néstor’s buddy Lázaro Báez (Butta changes the man’s name but nothing else) tells the story more clearly and simply than any newspaper article I’ve read.

“Mike explained that Zanetti was a close friend of the president and was a man who had made two very astute business decisions in his lifetime. The first was in 1990 when, while working as a bank teller, he leaked confidential bank documents to the mayor of Rio Gallegos, a small town in southern Argentina.”

And so, for Argentina enthusiasts the novel is great. I think it could hold some general appeal too, beyond didactic passages there is dark humour and some action.

The other important aspect of this novel is the detailing of everyday life in Argentina: The over-educated taxi drivers constantly complaining about the place going to the dogs, the service people ignoring you and the bizarre absence of change when you want to buy something. Butta gives us many examples of how Buenos Aires as a city looks great aesthetically but lacks the basics.

Reading this got me thinking about the difference between going to a café in New Zealand and Argentina. In Kiwiland, you go for the good coffee while the newspaper, consisting mainly of fluff, only takes five minutes to read. Most of the time I get my coffee to go. In Maradonaland, the café looks nice: classic wooden furniture, bowtied waiters – but the coffee is awful and the slow service makes you wish you could order at the counter like in New Zealand. The newspaper, however, will be full of information and take an hour to read. The single Mike glumly spends most of his time such cafes – occasionally he does enjoy himself with a good steak and whiskey – but more often he sits dreaming of leaving Buenos Aires for Sicily. Will the city let him go?

I was glad to find this noir novel set in Buenos Aires written by a non-Argentine. Phillip Kerr wrote a detective novel set there but his knowledge of the city was limited compared with Butta’s. There are many great local authors in Argentina of course, however, they tend not to write in this straightforward style, which sometimes I find myself craving.

Harvest Season

This novel successfully captures the backpacker scene in China’s Yunnan Province in the 2000s. However, the main characters are not backpackers per se but travellers who never want to go home. The fictional setting, Shuangshan, is – I think – based on Dali, a town by the beautiful Erhai Lake. Yunnan is home to many ethnic minorities, and in Dali, it is the Bai people. Taylor changes this to the Wu, who still keep their own language and religious practices alive. The Han Chinese, who make up over ninety per cent of China’s population, are outsiders in Shuangshan.

Shuangshan is a bucolic corner of Western China, far from the hustle and unfettered state-run capitalism of massive smokestack cities like Beijing, Guangzhou and Wuhan. Situated above a scenic lake and below hills where marijuana grows, Shuangshan attracts a slacker breed of Westerners and Han Chinese alike. The main character, Matt, shares a house with Wang from Northern China; they spend their days drinking and smoking weed. Matt, who seems to be in his forties, has come to Shuangshan in search of some sort of Shangrila he glimpsed fifteen years before. But his concept of what this paradise consists of is rather vague. He wants to find a beautiful secluded spot to smoke weed with the right girl, as far as I can work out.

Somewhere I read author Chris Taylor felt ‘Harvest Season’ had been unfairly labelled “Alex Garland’s ‘The Beach’ but in China.” A bigger influence, Taylor said, was Paul Bowles’s ‘The Sheltering Sky’. I read Bowles’s novel after ‘Harvest Season’ and I can see what Taylor was on about. Both novels involve hedonistic Westerners looking for spiritual answers in places they will be perpetually alien. You might argue the same for ‘The Beach’ – but in that novel, the Westerners aren’t really looking to be involved with the local culture at all. In ‘Harvest Season’, Matt speaks Chinese and has Chinese friends. He is also interested in the Wu culture and visits the local shaman. This is the most amusing part of the book as they haggle with the shaman over the price of sacrificing a chicken and reading their fortunes.

Bowles was a well-known figure in the post World War II bohemian scene in Tangier, Morocco. I wasn’t around in the forties and fifties and I’ve never been to North Africa, so I don’t know how well Bowles captured that world. In China, I never went to Dali; the closest thing I experienced to it was staying in a hostel in nearby Kunming. However, I spent a lot of time in China in the 2000s and Taylor is on the money with the atmosphere he creates.

While Bowles shows American couple, Port and Kit Moresby’s existential angst and nihilism through their, seemingly pointless, journey into the Sahara, Taylor does it through his characters’ clumsy conversations in Western-owned dive bars. The names of these places: Hummingbird, The Lizard, Moon Cafe etc. cracked me up. Every city in China used to have these hideouts for hard-drinking foreigners, where people discussed plans to REALLY do something in China – plans, which, for the most part, never eventuated.

The plot revolves around an Australian named Alex opening a youth hostel in Shuangshan that attracts big numbers of crazy Western hippies from their hangouts in Thailand and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Alex also takes over the market for selling drugs to Westerners, something that makes a local Wu businessman unhappy. Furthermore, a newly arrived hippie group, The Family of Light, wants to have a ceremony at the cave of the local shaman – they are turning Shuangshan into just another faux-spiritual tourist trap. Matt, the foreign resident with the longest history in Shuangshan and the best Chinese, has some ability to bridge the gap between the locals and newcomers but he is preoccupied with his crush on Alex’s girlfriend, A-hong – not to mention his consumption of drugs and alcohol. For an older guy, he knows how to party. A-hong was one of the weaker characters for me, I guess she was supposed to have something mysterious about her but I couldn’t see it. As the book nears its conclusion, the tensions between the long-term foreign residents, new Western faces and local Wu heavies build nicely and then disaster strikes.

Taylor, who wrote for Lonely Planet, gives an idea of how a place transforms from a sleepy backwater with unique charm to some sort of Koh Samui backpacker nightmare. It’s not a smooth ride, nor one that can be stopped. In the case of China, if the foreign backpackers don’t ruin a place then the Han Chinese will. An example of this being Yangshuo in Guangxi Province. Its needle-like hills grace many postcards but I’ve heard it has developed into a nightmare of Chinese tour groups following a guide with a yellow flag and LOUDspeaker.

Too much New York

Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg: Five stars for the characters and detailed, but never boring, descriptions of New York in 1959. Harry Angel is a private detective living in the Chelsea Hotel. On the job, he drives and subways around town with soup stains on his tie. Harlem, Times Square, Coney Island, the apartment buildings, the restaurants and the old theatres — all of these are brought to life on Angel’s travels. I really get tired of books and movies about New York as I say in a review of “The 25th Hour”, below and on goodreads. But this book made me interested in that city again.

Then there are the great characters: the Jazz player Toots from New Orleans who is into voodoo, the freak show fat woman on Coney Island, the patrician devil-trickster Louis Cyphre and many more. The novel is quite risqué, with the seventeen year old voodoo priestess Epiphany Proudfoot having an affair with Angel who is pushing forty. Also the black mass in an abandoned subway station that Angel spies on is quite shocking in terms of bloodshed and sex.

The plot centres around Angel being hired by Cyphre to find a long lost crooner called Jonny Favorite and this allows the usual private eye adventures to begin. However, this is a horror story and not just another hardboiled detective thriller. The plot gets a little overcomplicated. It was hard-going to understand the sequence of events after Angel met Favorite in Times Square in 1943. Like many, I came to the book after watching the Alan Parker directed movie “Angel Heart” with Micky Rourke and Robert Dinero. I think it is Rourke’s best movie.


The 25th Hour by David Benioff: Very readable, and a good study in how to develop characters and scenes. However, it is a bit overwritten in my opinion, I prefer sparse prose.

Mary’s hazel eyes drown in pools of painted shadow, pennies just visible at the bottom of the wishing well. Jakob wonders why she and her friends favor such a morbid style, as if their models were not chosen from the covers of slick magazines but the refrigerators of the city morgue. And her hair. When was the last time she washed her hair?

In saying that Benioff writes beautifully and with impressive flow. I was hooked by the prologue where Monty and his Ukrainian thug sidekick rescue a Pitbull lying wounded by the side of the road. This dog, Doyle, becomes an entertaining character in his own right. The plot does meander a bit, something you’ll know if you’ve seen the movie.

This is the tale of the golden boy, Monty – one who didn’t think the rules were from him – getting his comeuppance. I also thought Jakob, Monty’s high school teacher’s friend was a strong character, a man totally lacking in self-confidence, played with cringeworthy brilliance by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the movie. The book is also an ode to New York where Benioff grew up. Having seen so many movies set in New York and LA, I’d rather read about another American city.

One thing I didn’t really find convincing was the way Monty wooed Naturelle – leaving expensive gifts for her at her school. This seems a bit desperate, or was it just the practical way of doing things for Monty who always got what he wanted? Getting paid to write the screenplay allowed Benioff to quit his teaching job. While the book’s ending leaves us hanging, in real life a writer managing to quit his teaching job is a happy ending.

Rebellion in the Backlands

Brazil Wonders — Os Sertões (translated as Rebellion in the...

In Canudos, a backlands town in the Northeastern State of Bahia, Antônio Conselheiro (Anthony the Counselor) preached against the republic. His followers, leather-clad ruffians or ‘jagungos’, terrorised the countryside. In the 1890s the Republic of Brazil was in its infancy and insecure, rumours of monarchist plots abounded, troublemakers like the Counselor needed to be dealt with. He had gathered a large following, apparently for his indifference to suffering rather than his skill as a preacher.

“His had been a harsh schooling indeed, in hunger, thirst, bodily weariness, repressed anguish and deep-seated misery. There were no tortures unknown to him. His withered epidermis was wrinkled as an old broken and trampled breastplate over his lifeless flesh. Pain itself had come to be his anaesthetic; he bruised and macerated that flesh with hairshirts more cruel than any matweed; he dragged it over the stones of the road; he scorched it in the embers of the drought; he exposed it to the rigors of the cold night dew; in his brief moments of repose he put it to bed on the lacerating couch of the caatingas.”

Soldiers carrying modern rifles bore down on the five thousand or so mud huts that made up Canudos. The jagungos armed with blunderbusses or ‘trabucos’ were completely outgunned and outnumbered. However, the Brazilain army was embarrassed, their expeditions from the coast were badly supplied and the march to Canudos was treacherous; their enemy was brave and resilient:

“The truth is, frugal and parsimonious in the extreme, these rude fighting men who in a time of peace would go through the day with two or three handfuls of passoca and a drink of water, had in a time of war made abstinence a matter of discipline and had carried it to so high a point that they were capable of an extraordinary degree of physical endurance.”

The army was bamboozled as the enemy employed hit and run tactics, using the terrain to their advantage. A handful of guerillas hammering a conventional army was a story to be echoed in Vietnam, Algeria and Cuba. The army had krugar artillery guns, labouriously dragged to the field of battle, they fired grenades but intially didn’t bring much of an advantage. The army’s most effective troops were the mounted ‘vaquieros’ from the south: gaucho cowboys who could at least round up some cattle for the starving soldiers, and there was a battalion of police who themselves were backlanders and could play the jagungos at their own game of hit and run.

The Canudos campaign happened in 1897 two years before the Boer War started. I’ve heard the British-Africaner conflict named the first to feature guerilla tactics, apparently not, and I doubt Canudos was the first either. Hundreds of wounded government soldiers wandering through the backlands on their return to civilisation became a scourge:

“The country along the roadside, which up to then had been populated, was now turned into a waste land, as these tumultuous bands stormed through it, leaving destruction in their wake, like the remnants of some caravan of limping savages.”

Da Cunha spends Part One of the book detailing the geology, flora and fauna of the backlands and also the racial make-up of its human inhabitants. The summary is that ‘os sertões’ (the backlands, literally drylands) are plagued by drought, treacherous terrain and prickly bushlands or ‘caatingas’, which tore through the soldiers’ uniforms, but not the jagungos leather. The people, largely isolated from the coast for three hundred years, were of a particular racial mix and culture, in the main they were Caboclos (mixed white and Indians), there were also Cafuzos (mixed black and Indian), and Mulatos (mixed black and white). Da Cunha, who I think was of mixed race himself, calls these mestizos inferior. You have to remember social darwinist theories were popular at the time. Apparently the only pretty women in the backlands were of the “Jewish type”. As the narrative progresses Da Cunha changes his tune and recognises the resilience and resourcefulness of the sertanejos (backlanders). Part one of the book was unnecessary for me, as the author later describes the landscape so well in his battle narrative:

“Meanwhile, it was known that this road ran through long stretches of caatingas, necessitating the use of the pick in clearing a path; and it was further known, that a march of twenty-five miles in this midsummer season was out of the question unless each man carried a supply of water on his back, in the manner of the Roman legions in Tunisia.”

The writing is dense and the conflict in Canudos was a never ending string of muck-ups by the Brazilian army. Aware of course that the real problem came from the lack of strategy from the commanders, Da Cunha also explains the weaknesses of the common soldiers:

“In battle, to be sure, the Brazilian soldier is incapable of imitating the Prussian, by going in and coming out with a pedometer on his boot. He is disorderly, tumultuous, rowdy, a terrible but heroic blackguard, attacking the enemy whether by bullet or sword thrust with an ironic jest on his lips.”

Rebellion in the Backlands is a classic, it reminded me of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence because of the beautiful descriptions of a desert landscape. I also found there was a lot to wade through in between the odd passage in which Da Cunha’s prose (through translation) really shines. With the historical references and amount of detail, pathos and analysis here, Da Cunha was evidently an incredibly knowledgeable individual, he died in a gunfight with his wife’s lover at age forty-three. An unfaithful wife was something he shared with Anthony the Counselor, for whom such a betrayal led to fifteen years wandering the backlands, and his subsequent elevation to mesianic status. 

Devil of a State

Devil of a State, published 1961, is set in Dunia, a fictional East African state on the verge of independence. In this novel Burgess draws on his experiences as an Educational Officer in the Sultanate of Brunei where the original manuscript was set. Fearing a possible libel case, the publisher, Hutchinson, had Burgess change the setting. This may have been a good move because one of his earlier works about Malaya had provoked a lawsuit and another novel Burgess published in 1961, The Worm and the Ring, about an English grammar school, was pulped because of libel.

Initially, I feared the change of scene would make this novel lack depth, because, for example, Burgess could not use his knowledge of Malay, which he did in his novels set in Southeast Asia. Brunei, a tiny country on the island of Borneo, has Malay as its national language. In the first chapter Lydgate, the main character, calls out for a “taksi” to stop, this being the Malaysian spelling, but beyond this Burgess doesn’t use any Malay words, instead he refers to Dunia’s national language. Unlike in Clockwork Orange, he doesn’t invent a new tongue, but lets us know which language is being spoken and relates the dialogue in English. Dunia is quite convincing as a small, ramshackle, Islamic country transitioning slowly out of the colonial era relying on its uranium mines for income. There are plenty of Chinese, Indian and Arab immigrants chowing down on greasy noodles and curry. For the Africans he comes up with some invented ethnicities such as the Potok and there are other fictional (presumably) British colonies mentioned, where Lydgate has previously been posted. One alcoholic District Advisor has a rather tough posting:

“Rowlandson had an awkward territory. It was on the very fringe of Dunia; across a river hardly wide enough for a natural frontier with the jungles of Shurga; south lay Trognika, marked off from the United-Nations-protected land by the third parallel of latitude.”

Burgess hilariously lampoons how people speak English; luckily, some of the best dialogues of this sort involve Australians rather than non-native speakers, and so we are on safe ground enjoying the send up of Aussie road-builders, engineers and foremen upset that the pommie Lydgate has bought up their convict past:

“I told him that sort of thing was the sort of thing that’d mike any good Aussie go a bit crook, I said. And I said that not everybody kime to Austrylia on prison-ships. And then he sort of said how he was only kidding.”

Burgess has Aussie speech well-recorded here: mike (make) and kime (came) are spot on in terms of phonetics, although the Antipodeans wanting to be the salt of the earth (about 80 percent of us) use come for present and past tense. The ‘sort ofs’ are another scourge of Antipodean speech — endless qualifiers. I’m forever having to edit ‘a bits’ out of my own writing. I would render Burgess’s Austrylia instead as Austraya, they definitely don’t pronounce the ‘l’ and it’s often reduced to Straya.

The most entertaining characters are an Italian father and son duo, Nando and Paolo Tasca, contracted to install marble in the mosque the chain-smoking Caliph of Dunia is building. The mosque is a symbol of the Caliph’s power and supposed religiosity — it’s all he is really concerned with, any other problems he wants the UN Advisor, Tomlin, to handle. The Caliph gets rid of Tomlin when he refuses to deal with Paolo Tasca, camped in the mosque’s minaret as a bizarre form of protest. The older Tasca, Nando, spends his time drinking beer, making his son, who he hates, do all the work at the mosque. Paolo for his part has trouble getting laid in a Muslim state with no obvious prostitution. He ultimately finds a woman willing in Elaine, the African wife of Forbes, the Aussie roadman outcast for having a black wife. Forbes has ‘rescued’ Elaine from prostitution and refuses to believe she is still on the game while he is at home looking after the kids. He is the kind of gullible character you might, to this day, find sitting on a bar stool in Thailand.

Nando Tasca speaks more English than his son and in recreating his speech patterns Burgess is on relatively safe ground:

“I not a ave a you in a my ouse. In a the war we ave a foreign men in Italy. I not a ave one in my ouse. They not a ave a good manners. I not a have a you in a my ouse so you not a say what a you say just a now.”

With the Chinese Carruthers Chung he is on shakier ground. Carruthers is a fluent English speaker who merely mixes his ls and rs — more a Korean or Japanese trait than a Chinese one. Here the book almost falls to the level of the 1970s British comedy Mind Your Language about a night school English class full of foreigners with funny accents. But the mixing up of the rs and ls makes for some fun misunderstandings e.g. to pray becomes to play. Carruthers invites Lydgate to his bridge club, on arrival Lydgate learns that new members have to confess their sins. Dunia’s Passport Officer, the fifty year old Lydgate, often married and changing countries has a lot to confess. A guilt wracked protagonist is just about a necessity for the Catholic Burgess, and if no guilt is present then it has to be installed, hence Alex’s ‘treatment’ in Clockwork Orange. The best linguist in Dunia is hotel receptionist George Lim, who translates the German instructions for how to fix the marble cutting machine for Nando Tasca. Like the Australians, a strong voice for philistinism, Nando declares: “It a not a right a Chinese know a German.”

Paolo Tasca becomes involved in a workers strike and is beaten up in a melee with police and the Australian road crew taking revenge for his dalliance with Forbes’s wife. Once recovered, Paolo returns to the mosque, still shut after the strikes, and climbs the minaret. Singing Italian songs and cursing his father through the loudspeaker normally reserved for the call to prayer, he becomes a hero for the workers and the bearded men who are not going to shave until independence and are possibly planning a revolution. This backstory is not fully developed, nor is Lydgate’s past in various other countries, but the partial picture is enough. Lydgate insulted his current boss, Mudd, in Shurga, which is one reason he is exiled from the European district on the hill. The other problem is that he, like Forbes, has an African partner — although she is up the river having a baby. Lydgate dreams she is bringing him the smoked head of Mudd as a present, and there is another subplot about Europeans going up river and getting beheaded. This thread likely came out of stories of Dayak headhunters in Borneo’s interior that Burgess heard in Brunei. One of those to get beheaded and eaten is the unfortunate Rowlandson.

Lydgate briefly makes it to the hill when his thirty-something Australian wife, Lydia, returns to Dunia and convinces him to live with her. Lydgate isn’t much interested in staying with Lydia and escapes her easily. He plans to leave Dunia too, but eventually gets his comeuppance. The climactic chapter for Lydgate is disappointing, this is a book where the subplots — the Italians, the UN Advisor, Forbes — are more interesting than the main plot.

I haven’t read the Malayan Trilogy for fifteen years, but the Burgess who wrote those books was concerned for how independence would turn out and hoped for harmony between the Malays, Indians and Chinese. He was also more serious about Islam, claiming even to have considered converting. The switch from Malaya to Brunei wasn’t wise because here, in his fourth novel about life in the tropics, the corruption, heat and alcohol have got to him. Perhaps Southeast Asia had become a broken dream; he had seen paradise when he first arrived in the variety of cultures, the sun and the possibility of sexual freedom; also the colonial service compared well to the dullness of his job at Banbury Grammar School.

Then there were the real life shenanigans of his dipsomaniac and nymphomaniac wife, Lynne, drinking more gin than an isolated Englishman up the Yangtze in a Somerset Maugham story. Burgess recounts in his autobiography that one day in Brunei he lay down on the floor of his classroom pretending to be sick so he could go home to England. Whether he really was faking it is hard to say, since he was later diagnosed with a brain tumour — which in turn was an incorrect diagnosis. In the end, Devil of the State, dedicated to Graham Greene — who didn’t much like it — is a highly entertaining romp with a rather flimsy plot.

Wake in Fright

Review: 'Wake in Fright' is classic psychological horror - Los Angeles Times

This is a classic tale of the civilised man from the coast going mad in the barbarous interior. John Grant is a country-town school teacher on his way back to Sydney for the summer. However, because of problems with his flight, he gets stuck for one night in the Yabba, a town based on Broken Hill in the West of NSW. Author Kenneth Cook spent time in Broken Hill himself and he recreates the atmosphere in brilliantly cynical fashion. Wake in Fright was his first novel and it’s certainly the most well known.

As young school teachers everywhere, except perhaps Norway, Grant is pretty broke. He is befriended by the local policeman, Jock Crawford, in a pub and introduced to ‘two up’ a coin tossing game that men bet on. The copper is only too happy to shout Grant beers as he gets them for free while on duty. The peer pressure to drink beer is immense throughout the book, and the amber liquid, that initially gives relief from mental anguish, inevitably leads to greater horrors.

There is a girl Grant loves in Sydney but he isn’t confident of his chances with her given his financial situation. Two up is an oh so simple game – and the intoxicated Grant after some initial success throws his pay cheque – that needed to last him the entire summer – away gambling on it. He now has no way of leaving the Yabba – no money for food or shelter. However, there will always be somebody happy to buy him a beer and tell him what a great place the Yabba is – it’s a sinister form of hospitality and friendliness that he really would be better off without. John Grant can’t see the beauty of this place on the edge of the outback, for him it’s the South Canaan of the Philistines and Sodom and Gomorrah all rolled into one.

What follows is a bizarre and grueling, but I don’t doubt true to life, account of alcoholism, illicit sex, philistinism and animal cruelty. There is a great movie version of this book, but the kangaroo hunt is my least favourite sequence in it. In the book the hunt is very well written and heart rendering – the hacked-up kangaroos give no clear sign of their pain through crying or facial expressions, and that makes the cruelty of the shotgun and knife wielding ‘hunters-for-kicks’ all the more unbearable. Often I find that human on animal cruelty is more horrifying than human on human cruelty in literature. Don’t be put off, there are funny parts in this book too – it’s certainly an original work and an interesting comment on Australian society. It’s one of the best Australian novels I’ve read, and I don’t know of any work close to this tragic (semi-)satire written by a New Zealand author.

Five stars here and one of those cases where you are happy that a cult movie led you to a really interesting book. In the novel there are possibly even more beers imbibed than in the movie – and that’s saying something. Have a look for yourself, someone has made a highly entertaining montage featuring every drink of booze in the movie:

Photo: still from the movie “Wake in Fright”