Tuesday, 10 July 2018

The Haunting Tale Of A Concubine And Her Child

first published in Malay Mail, 10 July 2018

Much has been said of novels about Malaya written by foreigners, not all of which are good. So I warily picked up this one and ended up finishing it in one go.

Though Australian author Carol Jones has written many books, including many children's books and several young adult novels, she tapped into stories from her Malaysian Chinese in-laws and further research for her first adult novel. The Concubine's Child is about a young girl who is sold to a wealthy family as a concubine — and the child she eventually bears — across two eras: 1930s Kuala Lumpur and the 21st century.

Lim Yu Lan, the daughter of an apothecary, draws the attention of Madam Chan, the wife of tin-mining tycoon Chan Boon Siew. The older woman sees Yu Lan as the solution to her husband's lack of heirs.

Unable to bear children of her own, she essentially buys Yu Lan from her father, an inveterate gambler, and sets the hapless girl up as her husband's secondary wife and baby-making machine.

Bullied by Madam Chan and subjected to Towkay Chan's advances, Yu Lan's life in the Chan household becomes a nightmare. The reluctant concubine's only ally is the amah, Ho Jie, who befriends Yu Lan and teaches her ways to make her new life more bearable.

At first it seems as if the amah, who is not fond of her mistress, is doing it to spice up the drama between the two wives. Over time, though, she warms up to the girl.

“Men brought only trouble. And if trouble was coming, better if it came bearing gold.”

But before we know it we find ourselves in England in 2015, watching a couple try to fix a flat tyre in the rain. Turns out the couple are Sarah and her husband, Nick, who happens to be Yu Lan's descendant. Later, Nick announces that he's going to Kuala Lumpur for work. The news unsettles his mum, perhaps for good reason.

In Malaysia, Nick starts delving into his family's history. As his quest continues, the story of Yu Lan and her child unfolds further, bringing the two arcs — past and present — into a complete circle. And Nick won't be prepared for what he will find.

As the story progresses, what strikes me is how Chinese it feels despite the presence of elements of other cultures, regardless of the timeline — though it seems odd that the Chans would employ a Malay midwife for Yu Lan. The dialogue is peppered primarily with Cantonese, but the author also uses a smattering of local Hokkien and Mandarin.

Tiny hiccups aside, it doesn't feel as if Jones has thrown all her research plus the kitchen sink into this novel. She weaves in just enough of the culture to make it believable, conjuring images of old and present-day KL and walks us through the characters' day-to-day.

We choke on the smoke from incense in prayer halls, try to identify the herbs in an apothecary by smell, and chuckle at Nick's frustration with Petaling Jaya's GPS-defeating road network.

“She smoothed her hair back from his forehead. ‘Sometimes, when I walk into a room, it feels like somene has just left. Except there's no one there. It's not a sound or a scent, just...’”

Kudos as well to the writing. We jump back and forth between two periods yet don't feel jet-lagged. And it's nicely plotted, too. The prologue describes an ill, ageing woman who's about to tell her son the truth — but is she who we think she is? At least I did, but I was proven wrong. Such twists happen several times more, and at some point, I gave up trying to solve the mystery and just go with the flow.

At some point, supernatural elements creep into both arcs. Characters start conversing with people who aren't there and begin seeing ghosts, but are they real or not? Is there a curse on Towkay Chan's household and bloodline? Is Nick's growing obsession with his ancestry being fed by more than the need to find himself? The reader is left guessing right until the end.

Overall, Yu Lan's is not a sunny story. One is reminded of the black-and-white Cantonese dramas of yore, complete with shrewish first wives, their "salty wet" husbands, and the endless tears and wails of "woe is me." Concubine-taking isn't common or as acceptable these days, but it seems as if little has changed for women over the decades — something made more disheartening in the #MeToo era.

Despite their flaws, we are reminded of and urged to acknowledge the humanity of the characters — particularly the Chans, Ho Jie and Yu Lan, even if we disagree with some of their beliefs and motives.

Some of them eventually redeem themselves (somewhat) — Madam Chan especially, who was cajoling and cursing whoever she was worshipping at an altar when she is first introduced — but only a few linger on long after the book closes.

“...she didn't want to endure. What joy was there in a life that must be endured? She once had a dream ... That dream had fooled her into thinking that if she worked hard she could make a life of her own choosing. But she had been wrong.”

All this, plus the girl's plight and hints of the unearthly combine to engulf one in a pale sepulchral nimbus, like that which shrouds supposedly haunted houses (and gloomy novels), bringing down temperatures and chilling spines.

I regretted reading this at night with the air conditioning on. Even so, I pressed on — like Nick — compelled to find out what became of Yu Lan, her child, and the household that became their prison.

In the end, it was all worthwhile. I feel Jones has done a good job with this novel; her in-laws would be proud. Though the modern arc feels mundane when compared with the Malaya one, probably because of one's familiarity with the former, the way the two are entwined and resolved are satisfying and worth the risk of a sleepless night haunted by long-haired, white-robed apparitions.


Carol Jones held a meet-and-greet session on 16 June 2018 at Lit Books, Tropicana Avenue, highlights of which can be found here. She was also interviewed on Malaysian business radio station BFM89.9.

The Concubine's Child
Carol Jones
Head of Zeus
373 pages
ISBN: 9781786699824

Friday, 8 June 2018

A Presidential Race Against Time

James Patterson teams up with Bill Clinton in what might be this year's summer
blockbuster read

first published in The Star, 08 June 2018

I checked the cover, wondering if I was seeing things. Bill Clinton and James Patterson, teaming up on something titled The President Is Missing?

With recent headlines in mind, I thought, no sh*t, Sherlock.

But no, it's not non-fiction. Patterson's latest thriller (and my first Patterson novel), which he teams up with a former US president to write, explores a horrific 21st-century possibility: a crippling cyber attack that will plunge the United States back into the dark ages.

The US president in this novel, set against our current geopolitical climate, is Jonathan Lincoln Duncan, a veteran of the First Gulf War (1990-1991) who lost his wife to cancer and is plagued by a potentially life-threatening disease. Faithful to his wife, patriotic, reticent when it counts, brave (recklessly so at times), he seems a far cry from the real-life incumbent.

When we first meet him, President Duncan is staring down the House Select Committee in a hearing. On his orders, the CIA and US Special Forces thwarted an attempt by pro-Ukraine, anti-Russia separatists to kill a "most dangerous and prolific" cyber terrorist, whom he later contacted for as-yet unspecified reasons. He tells the committee nothing they want to hear, and risks impeachment by doing so. It doesn't help that a CIA operative was killed.

Later, an informant manages to meet Duncan, promising to reveal how to stop the threat, for a price. Against better judgement and the advice of his staff and doctor, he sneaks off to the rendezvous point where he and his contact – the informant's partner, a young Ukrainian maths prodigy – are ambushed, and the informant is killed.

A race against time ensues as Duncan and the Ukrainian kid go on the run, while Duncan's inner circle scrambles to keep things under control in his absence. The president's medical condition lurks in the background, threatening to succeed where the assailants failed.

In the middle of all this, a scheme is being hatched in the White House by the vice-president and the Speaker of the House. We also follow a female assassin codenamed Bach as she and her own team pursue the fleeing duo. Her distinguishing traits include giving her favourite weapon a name, apparent vegetarianism, and a habit of listening to classical music by one particular composer.

As one might expect of Patterson's oeuvre, the plot is straightforward, the pages turn quickly, chapters are short and numerous, and we get to know more about the characters and the world they inhabit than we need to. Not much suspension of disbelief is required, either. Except for descriptions of senate hearings, the presidential speech, and the workings in Washington DC and the White House, Clinton's presence here seems barely visible.

My biggest problem with this novel is too much exposition. Though things start off slow and begin to rev up around page 100, the pacing is bogged down in places by chunks of characterisation and figurative language. It feels as if a film is being storyboarded for a production crew. And is that flashback of how he met his wife even necessary?

Ultimately, these disposable details add little to the enjoyment of the story. One feels almost no urgency to retain whatever clues that might be hidden inside recollections of the past, Duncan's glowing assessments of his confidants, and the odd social commentary enabled by convenient scenes such as one of him interacting with a homeless war veteran and another of a black man being restrained by cops.

As a result, one's impatient gaze trails along the pages as it races towards the denouement, disregarding the challenge to piece together those clues and beat the authors to the big reveal. That is, if one can or bothers to. It turned out fine because I didn't see the ending coming, which made the reading experience a little better.

And is it odd that among the overly fleshed-out characters, I found the assassin to be the most compelling? She seems like the authors' favourite. Compared with the others, Bach has a more convincing backstory that unfolds more naturally, each revelation leading one to wish to learn more. She is bound to haunt the reader, albeit briefly, after the book ends; the others barely register.

I dove into this book with zero expectations and despite my misgivings (Bill Clinton, really?), I wasn't too disappointed. The premise is realistic enough and I like how it's plotted. Though the writing isn't hot (after escaping death, Duncan declares "But until we're dead, we're alive" – ugh), it serves its purpose.

Fans of Patterson and this genre will feel right at home with this novel, not just to pass the time but also as a timely balm for those yearning for a better president, government and nation.

The President Is Missing
Bill Clinton and James Patterson
Grand Central Publishing (2018)
513 pages
ISBN: 978-1-5387-1385-3

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Believing In Change Again

Much has been said about the coming general election. Some, however, feel nothing will change and have decided to sit things out or, worse, spoil their votes on polling day. Why bother, they say, when neither side offers no better option or proposition?

Choosing a lesser evil, as some paint the opposition, is still choosing evil. So these holdouts are prepared to grin and bear it until something better comes along.

Lucky them, because they know what better options look like. But do the rest of us know what's "better", after years of being conditioned to believe that things are already great here and can't get any better?

We know the refrain: change is bad, risky, potentially catastrophic. When we ask, "What's the worst that can happen?", the reply is "EVERYTHING." Those who display aspirations to find what's better or agitate for change tend to get taken down.

For some, this is WHY the general election is about change. We need to change the perceptions that the system is change-proof, and that changing things will always make things worse.

So before people can believe in "better", they need to believe in "change". People need to see change in action not just to believe in it but to see whether the myths cooked up about it hold up. Many do, at least in the short term.

People privileged enough to see "change" in action, to have glimpsed what "better" looks like, can never fully convey the significance of both to others. Fancy words don't help, either.

Only when people are allowed to enact change and see it happen, will they believe in it, and realise that they can modify their circumstances. Few things are more uplifting than knowing we can Make Things Happen.

Then, other myths will eventually fall.

Complacency sets in without change, along with the feeling that as long as power remains within a circle, the people in that circle can get away with whatever they want. Once that notion is eroded, they'll eventually drop certain behaviours and focus on what's really important instead.

Wishful thinking? Perhaps. Naive? Probably.

Change is always hard, particularly when dislodging long-entrenched rules, mindsets and institutions. It will involve reflection, acknowledgement and confronting the worst in us before we can work towards the best we can be.

We borked our moral compass by entrusting a few to set its direction, ultimately letting them control our minds and letting them seed into us ideas that only serve their needs. They're not giving that up without a fight.

This land, our institutions and our families will probably outlast many of us. To only work for change that guarantees good results in the near future or even within our lifetime seems a little short-sighted.

Consider GE14 a chance to break some bad habits. Yes, other things will be broken as well. Chaos might ensue. When all seems bleak, we need to believe in the positive, however remote it might seem. We need to believe our better halves will prevail in hard times.

People are donating to help others travel home and vote, regardless of political leanings? Who'd believe that would happen?

But it's happening, because a few believed it was possible to help them. And because a few believed, more and more believed too.

Believe that we can change. Believe that we can enact change for the better. Believe that things can be better.

Believe that we can be better.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

Out Of Hibernation

About two months ago, Uncle had a stroke. Someone found him crawling out of the drain he fell into and brought him to the hospital. Bits of clotted blood were found in the blood vessels in his brain, but no surgery was required. Instead, they gave him blood-thinning meds.

The news shocked the family. Uncle didn't smoke, drink or pig out. The doctor attending him mentioned high cholesterol levels, but didn't the clots cause it? How much did his cholesterol levels have to do with it? The doctor couldn't say.

Two cousins and I visited him the next day in the ICU. A day later, at an aunt's suggestion, I stayed with him for a night the night he was taken to a normal ward. Though he seemed better, half his body was weak, he couldn't speak and swallow properly, and he apparently had little control over his bladder or bowels.

When I came down to the city to live more than 25 years ago, Uncle did a lot to help me set up here. Since then, he's been the go-to guy for stuff about my rented apartment, on top of the miles-long list of stuff he did for the aunt's food business, from logistics and HR to paying bills and banking. For a long time, he was the rock in the roiling chaos of my life in the city.

Seeing him like this gutted me.

Perhaps, selfishly, I thought about me. Like Uncle, I had no spouse, little money, and few means to bounce back from such an event. Would I even be as lucky as Uncle, if and when the time came?

I was told how "lucky" I was that my family didn't have a history of debilitating illnesses - not so "lucky" now. On top of my asthma, allergic rhinitis, IBS and gastric problems, my occasional insomnia and possible depression, on top of the anxiety Uncle's illness is causing, what else awaited me down the road?

That struck right to my core. I can't afford to get into any trouble. I need more money. I need more exercise. I need more sleep. I need much, much less Malaysian food. I need a life mission - or two.

(Did I declare, repeatedly, that I picked editing and writing as jobs because I won't be retiring from them? How arrogant of me. As if I'd be able to or allowed to.)

What the hell have I been doing all this time?

Thank goodness for Lok and Fong. They endured a long wait with me for a table at a full-house Omulab on a muggy Saturday night and listened to me pour my heart out (like now) and gave me an attitude adjustment, one of many they doled out over the years.

"You gotta be the rock for your uncle now. How can you, if you go all to pieces too?"

The small batch of test chocolate chip cookies I'd made earlier in the afternoon and gave them didn't suffice.

I went home bone-tired, weary, and still a little anxious. Despite not sleeping well at the hospital, I stayed up till one-plus in the morning, tucked in by fatigue.

To calm my anxieties, I'd embarked on some spring-cleaning, including two boxes left behind by a relative. I ignored the roach carapaces (one of my kryptonites) and sorted out the contents, throwing away everything that I could justifiably discard. I also vacuumed and mopped the floors, scrubbed the bathroom a bit, and washed the bed linen.

Amazing, how much one can do in an afternoon.

Throw it all off. Let it all wash away. Doubt, pride, fear, guilt, the burdens of the past. A life with no hang-ups, no baggage and nothing to hide sounds pretty good. Liberating, possibly. I don't know if it'll ever take off in a huge way, but I need to take steps.

If only I'd learnt and embraced all of this without such a high cost.

These days, Uncle's getting better. Even though his old self appears to have re-emerged, it's as if a chunk of himself is gone. Brain and nerve damage, likely. But he's still with us.

More heartwarming is the community that grew around him during his stay. Key members were his former roommate, also a stroke victim, and the roommate's mother.

Auntie has been extra supportive; she told us about an expensive but effective health supplement for stroke recovery several other patients in the ward were taking, after a thorough investigation (i.e., being an auntie). She also told me about the Tzu Chi Foundation, which helps out with equipment and such; the National Stroke Association of Malaysia (NASAM); and other stuff.

I believe they were another reason the rate of his recovery was good, apart from the acupuncture and almost-daily exercise drills by relatives. The roommate was discharged last week, so we won't be seeing Auntie and her crew at the hospital anymore. They were super helpful in keeping him company as well when we're not around, so they will be missed. I'm grateful for them.

Still, it seems I'm not done feeling sorry for myself. Looking at Uncle, his life thus far and his condition made me wonder what all the learning, skill training, trivia gathering, resume building, what all that writing and filling up newspaper columns is for, if this is what might happen. What's the point?

For a while, I turned to CDs of podcasts by Ajahn Brahm of the Buddhist Society of Western Australia for comfort. Since I found additional podcasts of his talks online, I've been tuning into them almost every night, in lieu of the YouTube videos.

Repeated listenings of his talks - recycled similies, anecdotes, bad jokes and all - nurtured a letting-go attitude, but that also meant letting go of the muse and a weakened urge to write. I think I'm developing a nightly BrahmTalk™ habit too; he's already displaced BFM Radio on my drives to work and back.

I'm not sure if that's good or bad. But it did put some perspective on an incident about three weeks ago.

One Saturday, I received summons to visit Uncle instead of the usual Sunday. I'd scheduled things a little tight, hoping to keep a dinner date with Fong and Lok after the visit. But I thought I could sneak in a wash for the car, so off to the car wash I went. I fumed as I left for the hospital because all the nearby car washes were packed.

I left the hospital around 5pm, wondering if I was going to be late for dinner. Then Lok told me through WhatsApp that Fong was napping and asked whether we could dine later. I didn't chafe at this delay, glad to have visited Uncle and glad to have a breather in between. I went back for a break and managed to get the car washed.

The hospital visit, car wash and dinner were all settled in the end, despite the hiccups in the schedule. And I felt stupid for blowing up because of my haphazard car wash scheduling - of course it would be packed on weekends.

When I returned from dinner, I found people pouring out of a neighbourhood school as I parked the car. Seems the opposition coalition had a rally there that night. Oh well, the company at dinner was better.

As a bonus, I discovered more potential stomach irritants: cheese and processed meats. Minutes after scarfing down a cheese-enhanced wrap, the gut ballooned. But there were other ingredients, so I couldn't be sure. I hope it's not (also) the basil pesto. That would suck - one less recipe I can whip up on occasion.

In spite of my worries, that Saturday turned out okay. That was when Ajahn Brahm's exhortations to not worry or be anxious about the future - "the present is where your future's being made" - made so much sense.

The podcasts wrought other changes. I've mellowed out a little more, spend less time online after hours, don't blow up so much at work or over bad manuscripts (and I'm working on a couple). I feel less judgemental and snarky, though I worry about what that might do to my book reviews.

And because of the changes to my body as well, I've shrunk my portions, I'm going to bed before midnight more often, usually after a nightcap of diluted oats and oat bran with a splash of milk. And I wake up around the same time, before dawn. Nor do I miss my frequent coffees.

Then came news of the upcoming general elections and the related shenanigans...

Good times will pass, it's been said. So will bad times. Soon, hopefully.

Sunday, 31 December 2017

Farewell, 2017

I didn't want to write this, because I knew more or less what the outcome would be when I wrote this list about a year ago. Of course I wouldn't even accomplish half of it.

So I'll just list down what I got done.

Despite not being active this year, I did pick up a new habit: swimming. Although, it's more enjoyable if you're not counting laps, competing with other swimmers and fighting other people for space in the pool.

I did yoga for several months, but my instructor took time off to have a baby and I never found - or went looking for - another instructor. If I ever need to I guess I can look around.

I had reviews published in the papers this year, but I could've done better. And the to-read pile just got a little bigger.

I made chocolate chip cookies. I've always wanted to go there after success with my shortbread. But the first batch didn't quite work out the way I thought, and as each failed batch means money and ingredients down the drain, I'm being careful about when I bake my next batch.

But I made more use of the rice cooker for oat porridge and got a pasta machine to play around with, so it's been a nice year for me in the kitchen.

Overall, though, this year sucked.

I got sick. The worst I'd been in years. Either I ignored or underestimated my gastric problems, which got so bad they gave me insomnia. For two weeks I barely slept, an as a last resort I went to a psychiatrist, who was confident that I had depression. And the medical expenses I've had to foot from all that.

The shock of it all might have reset my circadian rhythms, to my relief, and I could sleep again. But as 2017 drew to a close I found myself repeating the same pattern of behaviours that might have started the health problems in the first place.

Late hours. No regular exercise. Eating all sorts, many of which were spicy, milky, creamy, greasy, or a combination of some or all of the aforementioned. Much of which includes hipster-cafe fare, of course.

I found refuge in fine food, among others, when things got too tough to handle. What would I do if that door shut completely?

Guess some of us can't enjoy certain things as we age. That is still hard for me to accept.

I don't know where I'm going with this. Maybe I just want to rant.

I won't be making any more lists. I don't see the point.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Post-Insomnia Kitchen Adventures

The last meal or drink I made was in ... what, in May? Since then, my gut problems flared up and resulted in sleepless nights so bad, I turned to a psychiatrist.

In the end, sparse, cleaner eating and early nights helped to reset my body's circadian rhythm and I can fall asleep again. I don't want to credit the antidepressants too much, because what they did spooked me even if it's just fogging up my head and making me drowsy.

Downside: if I go to bed later than eleven, I start feeling sick. I suppose I shouldn't push my body back there again. I'm not who I was two decades ago.

But I did go back to the kitchen towards the end of October, mainly to stress-bake shortbread. I experimented with chocolate chips, ground oats and orange zest, but the oven seems like a different beast now. Maybe the dough should be less moist.

Oat-embedded shortbread, made naughtier with chocolate chips

I loved the results. They all tasted the way they should, especially the orange zest version. Though for the latter, I wanted something that also didn't have bits of zest in them. Should I go and get some Sunkist cordial instead? ...Probably not, unless I learn to balance the amount of sugar.

And I prefer the zest of Sunkist oranges because of its sweet scent. I don't know if the zest of other oranges would work as well or be right for the job.

Of course, shortbread isn't the same thing as cookies, and it's only natural to move on to the latter at this stage. But after so much shortbread I think I need a short break from home-made sweets. And I'd botched several batches so bad they had to be discarded. Maybe baking while stressed IS a bad idea. Speaking of which...

A poor shot of the orange shortbread. Realised too late that messing
with the camera speed settings downgraded the image quality.

I trashed a made-in-China pasta machine by running too-sticky dough through it while prepping it for use. On impulse, I replaced it with a new one. A made-in-Italy model looked the same but cost almost four times as much, and the auntie who manages the shop discouraged that choice: "Home use? No need for a fancy brand."

This time, I made damn sure the dough was about right, i.e., won't stick to my fingers when kneading. To get the dough right, I had to feel it with my bare hands. I used bread flour, which I guessed would require less kneading than all-purpose flour, and I hope to turn into mini-loaves soon. But bread flour uses less water (I feel) to form dough than all-purpose flour - maybe due to a higher gluten content.

(I was moved by this spectacle (between 6:17 and 7:50) and after repeated viewings, decided to take the plunge. I am impressionable like that. Also, that background music ... mmm.)

I felt like the Rumpelstiltskin of pasta and noodles when those
near-perfect strands rolled out - tres bien!

I made two balls of dough but ended up using only one, as the other was too dry. I tried wiping the rollers and cutters with kitchen paper but only managed to clean the rollers properly. Even less flour got caught in the spaghetti/noodle cutter, and I hope I pried every last bit out of the machine.

I'm not certain about its cleanliness, which might mean another batch of test pasta and several more tries with batches I'll eat before I get down to serving others.

Still, I couldn't contain my excitement when the near-uniform strands came out of the gadget, while that same track played in my head.

Oui, la beauté des nouilles d'une splendeur absolue.

While psyching myself up for the pasta/noodle machine challenge, I played around with my long dormant rice cooker to make savoury oatmeal. Again, inspired by online accounts of the same.

Rice-cooker oatmeal is just nuts. What a versatile utensil this is.

The first time, I had to wipe down the pot and counter - several times. Nobody told me it would boil over, but maybe I should've done more research. I would learn that oatmeal will boil over with classic rice cookers; one source suggested adding oil, but wouldn't it be unhealthy?

The results were nice and creamy, and I fortified it with several types of nuts I bought from a Castania nut boutique at Bangsar Village: Brazil nuts, cashew nuts, almonds, pecans and walnuts. They're bigger and of a better quality but damn, they're EXPENSIVE.

The second round involved presoaked rolled oats, garlic cloves, almonds, cashews, sunflower seeds, roast pork, chicken stock cube (so convenient!), olive oil, pepper and a wee pinch of salt. Less liquid resulted in a thicker gruel and a rougher texture, but so savoury and yummy.

Another batch of rice cooker oatmeal with mushrooms and fewer nuts

For round three, I threw in shiitake mushroom slices, roast pork, garlic, chicken stock cube, a bit of ginger powder, pepper, almonds and sunflower seeds with presoaked rolled oats. I sautéed the mushrooms and garlic first before the other ingredients went in, stage by stage.

I've cooked with mushrooms before, but not with the staple of many Chinese kitchens. The shops downstairs sell mountains of shiitake and picking them from those piles seemed daunting. The payoff though was worth it.

Though better than round two, I think I needed more oil to saute the 'shrooms. The texture was still rough - do I need to soak the oats for longer and maybe pulverise them a little? And maybe I should omit the ginger powder next time in favour of the fresh root.

Also, I resorted to lifting the lid to stir or leaving it slightly ajar for more steam to escape. At least the pot and counter stayed clean.

Feels good, cooking again. Every new dish I try and tweak later brings me closer to something.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Saving Timbuktu's Treasured Texts

A tale of a high-stakes rescue of a trove of ancient manuscripts that is the stuff of legends

first published in The Star, 16 November 2017

The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu by Charlie English is a painstakingly well-researched saga of a far-flung desert town in the West African nation of Mali and the incredible modern-day effort by that town's librarians and archivists to save its cache of ancient manuscripts. But it's also more than that: It appears to warn against taking anybody's word at face value.

A fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and former head of international news at Britain's The Guardian newspaper, English tells the story of Timbuktu by alternating between two timelines: the West's long quest to discover the city, and the attempt in 2012 to protect its trove of texts from a civil war.

For centuries, the City of 333 Saints (and probably just as many spellings of its name) was a key part of a trans-Saharan trade route, small parts of which salt caravans still ply today. Early accounts by medieval-era travellers painted Timbuktu as an African El Dorado. The city did thrive on trade, but Timbuktu's wealth and stature has long faded since then.

However, it had other treasures. Timbuktu was also a university town in its heyday. Scholars from the Islamic world flocked there, and tons of written material on various subjects including mathematics, medicine and astronomy were produced, copied, and imported. It is estimated that tens or even hundreds of thousands of manuscripts could reside in its libraries and private collections.

Both strands of the narrative are well paced and thrilling. Tales of derring-do and misadventures abound, showcasing the best and worst of humanity. Besides the terrain and weather, the early European explorers also grappled with disease, hostile tribes, local politics and anti-Western attitudes, while the book smugglers had to deal with ransom-seeking thugs, faulty equipment and patrolling rebels.

However, we lurch between the two timelines like a camel's ungainly walk, making it onerous to closely follow both in long stretches. Key figures and events blur and blend into the background as impatient readers pray for the ride to end. Well, at least the experience is immersive.

The story doesn't end with the Great Manuscript Rescue. Questions eventually arose over details of the operation, the final tally of the salvaged manuscripts, how foreign donations for the task were spent, and whether the texts were in any danger at all. Even the principal rescuers appear to be vying to claim control of and credit for masterminding the effort.

One also notices similarities between the two timelines: the role of legend in shaping the image of Timbuktu in the minds of outsiders, the Timbuktiens' resistance against hostile forces and changes to their way of life, and how the town and its manuscripts became the focus of competing agendas.

From what I could gather, besides those ancient voyagers, the Timbuktiens of old may have concocted their own myths about their town and its personages. They attributed religious piety and supernatural abilities to the resident Muslim scholars, perhaps to deter invaders or bandits. Such sketchy and sometimes fantastical anecdotes helped feed the West's centuries-long curiosity of Timbuktu and boosted its reputation among adventurers looking for a challenge.

In the present, news of the manuscripts' successful evacuation raised a similar degree of excitement relief, and a sense of victory. At the time, Timbuktu was occupied by al-Qaeda-linked jihadists embroiled in the civil war. They had vandalised some of the city's landmarks, which were accorded World Heritage status, and many feared the prized papers might be targeted as well.

But one can't help but wonder: could the threat to the manuscripts have been played up to bring more of the world's attention to this town?

English provides notes for his sources and appears to vouch for them but he seems cautious, as we should be, about who and what to believe. When it comes to researching and writing about people, places and events of bygone eras and in isolated locations, one has to start with and trust contemporary sources of information, and dig deeper from there because – pardon the cliché – nothing is what it seems.

According to English, "This book is as much historiography as history. That is to say, it is an account of the interpretations of Timbuktu's past at least as much as it is the story of what actually happened there. The reasons for this will, I hope, have become clear: Timbuktu's story is in perpetual motion, swinging back and forth between competing poles of myth and reality. Spectacular arguments are made and then dismissed before another claim is built up, in an apparently continuous cycle of proposition and correction."

So one should read it without judgement, and take whatever is printed with a pinch of (caravan-borne?) salt. Like the glittering fables of West African empires, English's tale of these latter-day book smugglers can be compared to pearls: grains of truth layered with opalescent embellishments from the author's sources, with a little writerly polish.

Yet this doesn't diminish the story, its protagonists and what they sought to save, or cast doubts on the author, his work and his motives. Instead, English has brought us closer to this corner of the world, helping to lift the mystery shrouding it and revealing that even bare truths are just as fascinating as illusory palaces of gold in the African desert.

The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu
The Quest for this Storied City and the Race to Save its Treasures

Charlie English
William Collins (2017)
400 pages
ISBN: 978-0-00-818490-2