Reading and translating Taiwanese poet Ling Yu reminds me much of American writer, environmentalist, and activist Terry Tempest Williams’s wisdom: There is an art to writing, and it is not always disclosure. The act itself can be beautiful, revelatory, and private.
In my opinion, Ling Yu’s poetry contains the above qualities: perhaps aware of how several poets in her country and language are prone to cultivating celebrity fame and fan culture, or capitalizing on Facebook or Twitter to sustain their poetic careers and publicity, Ling Yu strives to create a Beckettian lyricism and silence—in life and her art. What results is a poetic voice that often does not need to be loud or echoey in order to assert its confidence, passion, and weight. On the contrary, it may be heard and felt through the imagery or ambiance it evokes, hence an overall Impressionist effect that comes across as distinctly moving yet oblique.
The third volume in Christoph Baumer’s history of Central Asia is as accomplished as its predecessors The Age of the Steppe Warriors and The Age of the Silk Roads. The Age of Islam and the Mongols picks up, as they say, where we left off: it runs basically from the 8th-century Abbassids through the 15th-century’s Tamerlane.
Two new non-fiction titles.
A novel with a title like Pyre is unlikely to have a happy ending. Nevertheless, the journey towards this inevitable outcome delivers a disturbing insight into human bigotry and brutality whose application extends far beyond the novel’s treatment of inter-caste marriage in contemporary Tamil Nadu.
Journalist Paul Murphy spent a lot of time in Japanese courtrooms, as—one hastens to add—observer rather than defendant. These stories, vignettes really, are drawn from the 119 cases he followed in Matsumoto, a town of a quarter-million about 200km west of Tokyo.
If you turn to page 105 in this book you will see two extraordinary figures standing and facing each other in a colored albumen print from 1872. They both have bare feet; one wears a light-blue three-quarter length robe, rather like an elegant silk dressing-gown, and the other a similar one of a darker color, with what looks a little like a skirt underneath. They have rather serious expressions on their faces, and medium-length thick, dark, dry-looking hair. They both have upturned mustaches, rather in the style affected by Kaiser Wilhelm II, although not quite as extreme, and they look as if they’ve been painted on.
Well-researched and devastatingly beautiful, Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing is an ambitious book that articulates the reverberating impact of totalitarianism in communist China, as well as the transforming power of friendship and humanity.