Imagine sitting in front of a large picture window and looking out. What you see before you isn’t your usual view, though, because you have been transported back to Japan at the turn of the 20th century by means of a massive book containing nearly seven hundred views of Japan in the last decade or so of the Meiji era (1867-1912). That it weighs some fourteen pounds (I viewed it on my newly-bought book-stand) ceases to matter as the photographs simply take over; the huge format becomes altogether appropriate, and readers will be mesmerized by its cinematographic proportions, vivid colors and sheer presence.
Before becoming king on the death of his half-brother King Nangklao (Rama III), Prince Mongkut (later Rama IV) of Siam had written a confidential letter in English on the subject of establishing a British embassy in Bangkok to intermediaries of the diplomatic envoy Sir James Brooke (later Rajah of Sarawak). Mongkut explained that such an embassy would not likely happen under Nangklao, because “Siam is now of most absolute monarchy in the world, in which monarchy one’s oppinion [sic] is no use.” He went on to say further that regular people were “equal of animals and vegitables [sic] in the kingdom,” which wasn’t exactly encouraging either. However, Mongkut, unlike the far more intransigent Nangklao, was known to be a man of great perception and intelligence, and while Brooke’s mission ultimately failed, “without King Mongkut’s benign influence and open attitude, the fate of Siam at the hands of the British and other western powers could have been very different.”
As the title suggests, this book is about traveling. However, the primary traveler isn’t human but a book, although of course humans are involved as transportation. In the fifth century. a Buddhist monk and translator named Faxian (c. 357-422) set out from China at the age of about sixty-two to travel to India. In his thirteen or so years of wandering he visited many centres of Buddhist learning as he went, collecting manuscripts so he could obtain “the true doctrine” from its source in India, after which he would return to China with what he assumed would be “authentic” versions of the ancient texts.
Chariot of the Sun, disingenuously subtitled “An Informal History of a Siamese Family”, stands out from the recent plethora of run-of-the-mill or self-serving memoirs and biographies by very much being neither. Here we can meet an utterly fascinating variety of people, a number of whom occupied positions of power, but also some who didn’t, and they’re all revealed through what Nic Dunlop tells us on the back cover, “storytelling that revels in the fragmentary and the anecdotal.” This is a different kind of memoir; the main “character” isn’t so much the writer himself, but a selection of family members evocatively presented through stories and photographs that are linked by a narrative about an ancient prophecy (no spoiling here!). Bunnag begins with the 2011 earthquake and ends with a tree (the name Bunnag means “tree”) and a placenta, hopping backwards and forwards in time as he goes, employing full use of his skills as a documentary film-maker.
China Through European Eyes is a very helpful and well-presented annotated anthology of extracts from European writers on China. The authors presented range from Marco Polo to Roland Barthes, which gives readers wide and various perspectives on the subject; some see China as a threat, others romanticize it, and still others find inspiration in its world-outlook.
Given the likely plight of the many interpreters left to the tender mercies of the Taliban in the recent Afghan conflict, this book is timely, because it highlights the fact that historically interpreters have taken risks or been exposed to dangers not of their own making. They’re not just anonymous or culturally liminal figures hovering in the background and performing the necessary task of conveying the sense of conversations between different nationalities. Indeed, it would seem that the better interpreters are at their job, the more each side becomes suspicious. What might they be hiding? Are they adding their own nuances, agenda or biases to what they’re transmitting? Can interpreters ever accurately convey what was said? How can they (or should they) “soften” language which might seem offensive yet still convey what was said? As Henrietta Harrison, a professor of Modern Chinese Studies at Oxford, tells us, it “was not just a question of finding someone with the necessary linguistic skills. What mattered was trust.” Unfortunately, “their abilities to empathize with the other side, and, quite literally, speak their language, meant that their loyalties could never be entirely clear.”
In this collection of travel stories, Canadian journalist and photographer Andrew Scott takes us on a lively romp through China, Japan, Laos, India (twice), South Korea, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Indonesia and Turkey. The congenial Scott exhibits just enough seriousness when it’s needed and is always sensitive to the people he meets, refreshingly non-judgmental and patient, although he admits that this insouciance sometimes took a good deal of effort on his part to maintain.