Andrés de Urdaneta is a name that few other than specialist historians will immediately recognise. He was one of the last of the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century explorers and navigators from the Iberian peninsula whose voyages resulted in redrawing the globe in more or less the form we know it today. Christopher Columbus has a country and several cities named after him; Ferdinand Magellan has the famous straits. But Urdaneta has no such monuments.
Perhaps this is because Urdaneta didn’t discover how to get anywhere, but rather less glamorously but no less importantly discovered how to get back. Until 1565, no fleet had succeeded in sailing east from Asia back across the Pacific to the Americas. It was Urdaneta, a survivor of earlier expeditions, who first worked out the right winds and currents across the uncharted waters of this vast ocean. His discovery was called the tornaviaje, or ‘return trip’.
There is no faster way to gauge the depth of a well than to drop a stone, and wait for the heavy thud signalling it has reached the bottom.
Indian writer Karan Mahajan is more ambitious. In his latest book, he throws not a rock, but a deafening bomb that leaves in its wake a trail of dead bodies and scarred souls, in a mad scientific experiment aimed at exposing the deepest and darkest corners of the multi-layered well that is the Indian society—and if the well has to explode in the process, so be it: it would just be collateral damage. As one of the novel’s terrorists provocatively argues, “I’m pointing out the flaws in the system. Terror is a form of urban planning.”
Hong Kong’s Sir David Tang has for several years had a column at the Financial Times answering reader questions on various matters of modern living, from how to dress for a job interview to (only in Britain) what to take as a house gift when invited up to shoot. These, or least a selection of them, have been gathered up into Rules for Modern Life: A Connoisseur’s Survival Guide.
The drama in JFK Miller’s tenure as a magazine editor in Shanghai from 2006-2011 came not from deadlines or chasing stories, but official censorship. Six years later, Miller’s account of this experience isn’t so much outdated as understated, because censorship in China is still just as pertinent now as it was then, except it is more severe and wider ranging.
It is a sultry early Autumn day in the central province of Hunan in China, half a century ago in 1967. In a small cluster of villages, remote from the main political centre in Beijing, life revolves around farming, tending animals, just making a basic living. But for a couple of weeks, from around the 20th of August, the market places, and the areas by the rivers and fields, are the scenes of a new kind of activity—the brutal slaughter by neighbors, relatives and friends of people from within their communities. The spate of daylight murder ends as abruptly as it had begun.
It is hard to exaggerate the force of Chinese journalist Tan Hecheng’s The Killing Wind. Tan, eerily, had visited the township of Daoxian—the focus of his study—only a few weeks after the murders had happened. As a young “sent down youth” then, in the early period of the Cultural Revolution, he had come to this area with a friend.
From the gangplank of a pre-war steamship to the present, via the jazz underground of 1960s London, Hannah Lowe’s rewarding second collection revels in the company of an unlikely crew of voices and personalities. Chan takes its name from the poet’s father (nicknamed, in turn, after the Polish card magician Chan Canasta) but does not shy away from the older resonances of the word, tracing these back into her Hakka heritage and the journeys of a global diaspora. Along the way, the poems investigate lives that intersect with Lowe’s personal history, no matter how brief the acquaintance: from the magnetic jazz saxophonist Joe Harriott, her father’s first cousin, to the travellers and stowaways who join Gilbert Lowe on the SS Ormonde in 1947 as it sails from Kingston to Liverpool.
In 1946, John Hersey published the first account of the horrors that awaited those unlucky enough to survive the bomb in his short Hiroshima. Seventy years on, Susan Southard has done the same for Nagasaki. She interleaves the nightmares visited on five young victims (hibakusha) within the broader context of Japanese totalitarianism, the decision to drop the bomb, Washington’s censorship and denial of its after effects, the fight against discrimination and for medical aid for the hibakusha, and finally their campaign to abolish nuclear weapons.