Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Sum of our Follies -- a review

The Sum of our Follies by Shih-Li Kow
published by Silverfish Books
A review by Peter Duke.

This is a beautifully written story about an unlikely group of people brought together by a series of accidents. The setting is a small rural town in Perak, northern Malaysia. The main characters include a young girl from an orphanage in Kuala Lumpur, an irascible elderly woman, the child's guardian, and a middle aged man who has given up his career in Kuala Lumpur for a life of peace and quiet. However, things do not work out quite as he expected when a guest at the elderly woman's home stay is attacked and killed by a large carnivorous fish in a nearby lake. The arrival of a transvestite at the home-stay complicates matters even further leading to the middle aged man being injured.  As the young girl grows up she makes an important discovery about her mother who abandoned her when she was an infant. This discovery changes the relationship between the elderly lady and the child. Then there is the occasional intervention of an older girl from the orphanage who complicates matters even further when she falls out with the elderly woman. The author has successfully brought the characters to life and I find myself engrossed in their lives and stories and empathising with them as the story progresses.

 Shih Li is a wonderful writer, picking her words like gems and stringing them together. But there are enough twists and turns in the stories and the reader is ambushed with totally unexpected events, such as a sudden death, unexpected humour, sex and even acts of violence. There is also a touch of mysticism in the story with the giant man-eating fish and the boy ghost, but these are such an integral part of the story to be readily acceptable.

The author told me that in reality she wrote a set of short stories that she brought together to create her tale. But the book is in no way disjointed and flows well from one scene to the next as the characters lead us through the twists and turns of their lives.

The book raised a range of emotions in me - amusement, surprise and expectation amongst others. I recommend the book to anyone who wants to enjoy a beautifully written story about not so ordinary people thrown together in a seemingly charming setting with hidden dangers and surprises. It's an intriguing tale.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Ruined Nest and other stories

Probably one of the best translations of Rabindranath Tagore I have read, if I may say so myself. Being a native speaker of Bengali and an English professor, MA Quayum has been able to get into the innards of the author's culture, language, history, humour and politics, to present the stories intact, authentic and honestly, as is possible to be in a work of translation. Some are funny, some are sad and some are horrifying, not in a supernatural sort of way but in what man does to man (or women). Some of the stories in this collection (hand-picked by the translator) are so exquisitely multi-layered, so pregnant with the unsaid, that they will leave the reader breathless. Here is a glimpse of what an exceptional writer the man, popularly known as Gurudev (divine mentor), was. For those who have only heard of Gitanjali, get a peek of why so many Indians (especially Bengali speakers) love him so. In 1913, he became the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Quayum’s translation of Tagore’s stories is exceptional in its retention of the subtleties of Bengali expression. It not only transfers the colloquialisms commonly used in a daily Bengali household but brings alive the minutiae of the rural milieu … The other outstanding feature is … Quayum’s success with translating what is more complex – the intricacies of human relationships … Generally, the stories read almost as though they had been written originally in English. At no moment does the reader get lost in the translation, either linguistically, culturally or psychologically, and this surely is the ultimate test of a translation.
Transnational Literature, Australia

In any translation it is very difficult to keep intact the sense of each context. Quayum’s translation is as close as one can get: clear, contemporary and accessible to a modern English-reading global audience. It is not handicapped by the ignorance of the translator of certain delicate nuances of the Bengali language, especially in the context of intimate household expressions. There is commendable fidelity and honesty in Quayum’s translation. It once again opens up the possibility of discovering a relevance of Tagore's creations more than a century after they were composed…. Without hesitation I recommend Professor Quayum’s volume as an authoritative and eminently readable translation, an essential Tagore for collectors. It should find a place on every discerning reader’s shelf.   
The Daily Star, Bangladesh

Quayum has a lifelong passion for Tagore's writing….. His translation shows a feel for Tagore's voice, vision and cultural milieu, and he is skilful with the suggestive undercurrents of Tagore's stories.
Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Hong Kong

In this multicultural age, it is an absolute necessity for all of us to read diversely and think universally. Quayum’s highly readable translation of Rabindranath’s short stories will serve that cause, and also help to revive interest in the works of a literary genius who was once described by a French writer as “an eagle-sized lark.”
Humanities Diliman, The Philippines

I can safely vouch that in giving us a high quality rendition of some of Tagore’s best stories written over a span covering more than fifty years, Prof Quayum has filled more than just the simple gap of translation. Prof Quayum has now invited us to enjoy, rejoice and then, hopefully, act on the morality prompting both the creator of these rare gems as well as its current-day conveyor. Both deserve our undivided attention.
Professor Kirpal Singh, Singapore Management University

Trivia. Rabindranath Tagore was the only person to have written the national anthems for two countries: he wrote the songs which are now the national anthems: Bangladesh's  'Amar Shonar Bangla' and India's 'Jana Gana Mana'.

Available (soon) at all major bookstores in Malaysia and Singapore, or  online (now) here: (This annotated edition will be well suited for colleges and universities. Please email Silverfish Books for more information.)