Thursday, 15 February 2007

The Asiatics

No matter how voracious or adventurous a reader is, he or she will find at least a few book unreadable. Dumped, as Sharon puts it. An unreadable book feels impossible for us to finish it, even with an open mind or a broad spectrum of interests. It's just not our cup of tea or coffee or air ketum (thanks, dzul).

For me, such a book is Frederic Prokosch's The Asiatics. This book was a best seller when it first came out, which was back in the 1930s. I have little idea what's life like back then, but given that TV was still not widespread and the Internet nowhere in existence, being a best selling novel could be a huge deal. For a good reason, The Asiatics traces the journey of a young American man hitchhiking his way throughout continental Asia, from and to places like Istanbul, Damascus, Tehran, Delhi, Penang, Hong Kong and Hanoi. The man's journey is packed with surprises, danger, and of course, the key ingredient, the exoticness of the land called Asia, a place that fuels the imagination of inquisitive dreamers back then.

Apparently, Prokosch is also one of those people. He wrote the book without setting a single toe anywhere in an Asia country. The fact that book became a best sellers seems to suggest that readers believed in Prokosch's 'Asia.'

The Costa Book of the Year Award winner was announced a few days ago. The £25,000 prize goes to The Tenderness of Wolves, a first novel by screenwriter Stef Penney. First novels clinching the literature awards is not exactly news. The newsworthy part is the novel is set Canada, a place that Penney never visited, and will probably never will, due to the reason she's agoraphobic.

My fear wasn't of crowds or being out in the open. It was more a fear of losing control. For me it was public transport, and the bigger and faster, the worse it was, so planes were the scariest thing. Once you're in a plane you really can't say, 'Actually, let me out here'; there's nothing you can do. It's that feeling that it's totally out of your control.

Penny's 'Canada' is entirely patterned from reading and research. Her win seems to do anything but stop her from writing about places she'll unlikely to visit as she plans to write a road trip novel about two girls driving across the Lappland of Finland.

In due fairness, I myself haven't visited the places that Prokosch (and Penney) wrote about, with the exception of Penang.

Somehow I find Prokosch's vision (or version) of Asia to be very unusually less life-like, but still exhales an air of mystery and mystique that seems to attract the Western world to venture into these parts in the first place. The Asiatics' Asia is largely a strange place, filled with surprises both pleasant and painful lurking within its corners, almost like an alien planet in a sci-fi film. The problem is Asia is a real, existing place.

I guess what I'm getting at is nothing quite beats something written by someone who's actually been to the place and fully immersed him or herself into the local surrounding. Imagining a place and transferring it in vivid details onto the pages is a mark of a ripe imagination and skillful storytelling. But you can never fake the love and admiration for the people and the places.

The Asiatics is snapshot of its generation, a time when travelers to faraway places are a mere fistful and the rest had very little choice but to rely on their accounts. But on second thought, today's situation isn't really much different, considering what the media orchestra are leading us to believe. Maybe Prokosch is actually on to something. Maybe the world hasn't changed that much after all.


bibliobibuli said...

i hadn't heard of "the asiatics" but would be intrigued to see how he describes penang without having been there! interesting post

and you're quite right to guiltlessly dump what you can't enjoy. life's too short!

rol said...

(Ah, it's Sharon herself! How on earth did she find her way here?)

Thanks for dropping by. Didn't even get to the Penang part. Barely made it past Turkey. My lesson is never go to a book sale that offers RM12 for 5 books when you have 10 minutes to spare.

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