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May 26, 2008 | by  | in Books |
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Bibliotheque

New Fiction

Mo Zhi Hong, The Year of the Shanghai Shark (Auckland, Penguin, 2008)

Hai Long is an orphaned pickpocket, living with his uncle on the money provided by rich foreigners’ wallets in the North-Eastern Chinese city of Dalian during 2003 – the year of SARS and the invasion of Iraq. If this sounds like a sob story, it isn’t. For 2003 was also the year Shanghai Sharks player Yao Ming entered the NBA. And for the new Chinese generation of Mo Zhi Hong’s The Year of the Shanghai Shark, basketball is more significant than disease and war.

Mo Zhi Hong, who currently lives in Auckland but spent much of his youth in Singapore, Taiwan and China, returned to Dalian recently to teach English, providing the inspiration for his first novel. In the first thirteen chapters, narrator Hai Long recounts one acquaintance per chapter. He details the lives of folk such as Fish the beggar, Basketball and Football the teenaged sportsmen (one full of talent but no ambition, the other full of ambition but little talent), and Gambler Dang the Ma Jiang expert, besides a number of writers, gamblers, workers and siblings. Each story stretches through Hai Long’s childhood before informing us what the characters are up to in the present. The final three chapters then detail Hai Long’s first crush and his exit from China.

Although the book does contain a central narrative, its fractured structure, separated into essentially independent character tales, reinforces the narrator’s sense of social dislocation. Hai Long and his buddies Po Fan and Xiao Wang live on a diet of foodcourt takeaways and NBA. In the book’s definitive moment, Hai Long is eating McDonald’s fries beside his elderly friend The Old Stone, who stands on a street weighing people. The Old Stone, who believes SARS and any other negative occurrence is due to an American conspiracy, angrily scatters the youngsters’ fries and squashes them onto the ground with his stick:

When he had finished squashing, The Old Stone spat and said,
‘American!’
‘What?’ Xiao Wang glared at him.
‘American!’ Te Old Stone spat, and gestured to the ground.
We looked at each other in surprise.
‘McDonald’s fries are American?’ Xiao Wang said.

The above dialogue gives a hint of both the book’s strength and its weakness. Mo Zhi Hong’s narrator is at first detached and largely characterless. His character only slowly develops over his interactions with others; by the end of the novel he realises his attachment to those around him, but is still bored and eager to leave. In a way the novel’s disconnect is the whole point – it reflects the character’s inner state, like a Bret Easton Ellis tale minus the drugs and violence. If The Year of the Shanghai Shark seems to lack depth, this is because it needs to: Mo Zhi Hong laments the way China’s nostalgia for history is being wiped away by economic success, and his debut is a successful articulation of this fear.

By Tristan Egarr

Non-Fiction

Rebecca Gray, The First Door That Opened (Steele Roberts, Wellington, 2008)

Winston Churchill said “we make a living by what we do, but we make a life by what we give.” Perhaps this is never truer when those who are making a new life in New Zealand make other lives better.
I was surprised by Rebecca Gray’s The First Door That Opened. It’s a very simple book: new immigrants tell their stories of volunteering in New Zealand, some for the first time. It blasted my preconception that this would be just a book about volunteering, and pursuing a “get into volunteering” agenda.

The book itself, a transcription of Gray’s MA thesis, expands on the stories of people she met as a researcher and volunteer. While Gray is not a spectacular author, the book’s greatest strength is that the voices of her subjects come alive, precise with anecdotes and biography.

In one sense, the book is not so much about the volunteering itself, but the sacrifices made by people new to New Zealand, trying to find a way to get up the employment ladder. In a nation replete with rumours of surgeons driving taxis and accountants operating check-outs, you think that maybe it’s only the volunteer organisations that are taking a chance, or that only they actually do a good job at explaining “Kiwi working culture”.

In any case, Gray is critical of current Government policy in her conclusion, which I think distracts from the simplicity and poignancy of the stories inside. I feel that reading this book might encourage those who do not volunteer to start, but it’s hardly a clarion call. It’s a book about people adding a new chapter to their lives. At a minuscule 72 pages, it’s too small a book for the message, and is hardly a page turner. But if you are a new immigrant, or a volunteer, you may well still be surprised by it, as I was.

By Geoff Hayward

Bookshop Review

Parsons Books & Music, 126 Lambton Quay

I love books. I love classical music. I love coffee. So when I discovered on Lambton Quay a warm little shop dedicated to just these three things, my response was enthusiastic. Embarrassingly enthusiastic. Parsons has a deliriously cramped feel to it: the books are stacked high enough to be hard to reach; the cd section curls around to the point of being hard to navigate; and it’s a source of genuine wonder to me that a café can fit in there at all, no matter how tiny.

Ah, but the dimensions are deceptive. Parsons is crammed full of stuff I like. It’s pretty much the go-to shop for classical music in Wellington: if you want something they don’t have, they’ll order it in for you. The books are well-selected: there’s not much pulp, but also little in the selection that’s so “literary” as to be inaccessible. I particularly like the poetry selection, which is just a little off-beat while keeping the standards well-covered.

Parsons is the only shop where I’ve ever applied for a job. Possibly due to my embarrassing enthusiasm, the proprietors sensibly rejected me. I’m not sure I can recommend this shop to everyone, but for people who can identify with the first three sentences of this review, I can.

By BK Drinkwater

Neglected Masterpieces

Vladimir Nabokov, Pnin, 1957

While Lolita was banned, Nabokov wrote and published Pnin. Lolita is a monument of literary architecture and linguistic playfulness, Pnin is a comparatively scaled-back affair, although the architecture and the playfulness remain. It was serialized in magazines like The New Yorker, to which Nabokov sent chapters as he finished them, in no particular order. Pnin is probably the most accessible of Nabokov’s novels, but I’d caution you not to confuse this with shallowness.

The eponymous hero is a bumbling Russian professor, Timofey Pnin (pronounced: Pnin), who between comical mishaps teaches the great Russian writers at Waindell College. The story is told by an unnamed rival of sorts, whose position in the narrative admits multiple interpretations, some of which go some way towards subverting the plot entirely. (It is, for instance, possible that Pnin is largely an invention of the narrator; figuring out the implications of this is something of a cottage industry.)

One thing I love about a lot of Nabokov, and this applies to Pale Fire and The Real Life of Sebastian Knight as well as Pnin, is that the self-reflexive interpretations tend to bring the reader back to the plain meaning of the text, and the plain meaning is usually pretty fun. Instead of pulling rug after rug from under the reader’s feet, leaving an impression of being fucked with, Nabokov does a balancing act: he uses the reader’s own problem-solving skills to draw them into engaging, compassionate stories. And Pnin is above all compassionate. Its hero is a figure of fun, even a bit of an uptight asshole, but I can’t for the life of me wish him any embarrassment or harm. Another balancing act.

Since I’m talking about Nabokov, I need to talk about his writing. He is my favourite stylist of the English language, along with Joyce. His sense of humour finds joyous absurdity in all sorts of inappropriate situations (making him the opposite of Beckett, who found depressing absurdity everywhere) and quite often causes me to laugh out loud, or “lol”, as the modern parlance has it. I’m a Nabokov fanboy rather than an expert, so my advice is to be taken with a grain of salt, but here I go anyway: if you want to get into Nabokov—and you should—start with Pnin.

By BK Drinkwater

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About the Author ()

BK Drinkwater's actual origins are shrouded in mystery, but it is said that he sprang from the summit of Taranaki fully formed, four days after the birth of Aristotle. He resents having been overshadowed in this way.

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