“I think we are stuck in someone else’s movie,” says co-protagonist Chiara Brasi early on in Insurrecto, telegraphing the framing device for Gina Apostol’s new novel. Chiara, filmmaker, daughter of an artsy filmmaker, daughter of an heiress, golden-haired devotee of Hermès bags and sunglasses, has come to the Philippines to research a movie. She needs help, and finds Magsalin, a returned-expat Filipina writer and teacher.
Some authors capture a time and place effortlessly. They draw upon aspects of popular culture and spin them into a literary tale that is more powerful and longer-lasting than the milieu from which they sprang. Veeraporn Nitiprapha is such a writer. But as her work has only appeared in Thai, she has been beyond the reach of most of the world.
Although set in an exotic late-Ottoman Istanbul, a city of harems, dervishes, veils and fezzes, Ahmet Altan’s Like a Sword Wound nevertheless reads like a familiar and recognizable Western European period classic.
With its unvarnished look at infidelity, drug addiction, war, and fractured families in mid-20th century China along with a jarringly abrupt non-linear narrative and burly eight-page character list, Eileen Chang’s final novel Little Reunions is a difficult read.
There are some cities that lend themselves to darkness and intrigue. Macau is one of these places. First settled by refugees fleeing the Mongol invasion in northern China, it became a fishing village and later a haven for pirates. The Portuguese arrived in the 1500s and built a slice of the baroque Mediterranean in South China. It was returned to China in 1999 and today it’s the gambling capital of the world.
Yan Ge’s The Chilli Bean Paste Clan should come with a warning on the cover: “contents may cause readers to break into a sweat and consume unhealthy amounts of Laoganma spicy chilli crisp.” The setting for this complicated and often humorous story of the Duan-Xue clan, a family consumed by resentments, betrayals, matriarchal machinations, and sibling rivalry, is Pingle, a small town in Sichuan province, which the author tells us in the foreword is essentially the town she grew up in.
Chi Zijian’s novel The Last Quarter of the Moon was set among the Evenki reindeer-herders in remotest Heilongjiang. Her latest novel in English translation, Goodnight, Rose, has as its center the relationship between a Chinese country girl making her way in Harbin and an elderly Jewish woman who arrived, as did many, after the Russian revolution. Chi herself seems fascinated by the interaction between peoples and societies; her novels can transcend nationality and culture.