During the Great War, 140,000 Chinese laborers were recruited to work in England and France in order to free up men in those countries to fight. Janie Chang uses this corner of history as the backdrop of her new historical novel, The Porcelain Moon. While the two characters at the center of the story—a young Chinese woman named Pauline Deng and a French woman named Camille Roussel—are fictional, Chang indicates in her author’s note that many of the landmarks and other details of the Chinese labor camps she writes about are based on real places.
When Vijay Balan was a young boy, his father would regale him with stories inspired by family history. One of these centered around Balan’s grand-uncle, a police officer in 1920s and early 1930s India who later went on to Singapore and became a spy for the Japanese military during World War II. Balan has turned this tale into his first novel, The Swaraj Spy. The title refers to the Hindustani word for self-rule, and it’s this wish that drives the main character, Kumaran “Kumar” Nair. The book is less a mass market spy thriller and more of a character-driven story of a man who hopes to do right by his family and country.
While the foreigner in colonial India has become, at least since EM Forster, something of a genre unto itself, the foreigners are almost invariably British and the novels mostly in English. Museum of the World by Christopher Kloeble is something of a novelty not just because it is based on the true story of the three Bavarian Schlagintweit brothers who explored India for the East India Company in the mid-19th century, but also because it was written in German; this new member of the canon appears via translation.
In 1934, tens of thousands of Communist guerillas fled Jiangxi, in an extended retreat through hazardous terrain to Shaanxi in the north, while under fire from their Nationalist enemies. The Long March, as it became to be known, helped build the legend of the Chinese Communist Party, and of its leader Mao. While on the Long March, Mao had a daughter, who was left behind to live with a local family due to the trek’s dangers. That event inspired Michael X Wang’s debut novel Lost in the Long March, about one couple who faced a similar decision—whether to leave their child behind—and that decision’s repercussions decades later.
In Preeta Samarasan’s new novel, Tale of the Dreamer’s Son, the caretaker of a commune in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands states that “some nations were sending people to outer space while our countrymen were busy butchering each other.” Mrs Arasu, the caretaker in question, was referring to the 1969 race riots in Malaysia, namely the May 13 Incident in which hundreds were killed, the majority of them ethnic Chinese. It’s this date that not only sets the tone for Samarasan’s novel, but also the 2010 award-winning Chinese-language The Age of Goodbyes by another Malaysian writer, Li Zi Shu, recently translated into English by YZ Chin, herself an author of some renown.
Although the Long March, the Communist Red Army’s year-long retreat in 1934 and 1935 to evade the Nationalist Army, is one of the most dramatic events of 20th-century Chinese history, it seems to have featured less as a setting for recent novels than the Cultural Revolution.
It helps to be reminded from time to time that literature, all other objectives aside, is at bottom storytelling. And Turkish Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk’s latest novel Nights of Plague is storytelling so luxuriant that one cannot help but soak in it.