Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Madelaine Dickie's Troppo

This month's book was a first for us, as it was a novel by someone close to us, the fiancée of the son of one of our group's founding members! How great is that, eh? Not only that, but Madelaine Dickie's debut novel, Troppo, won the City of Fremantle/TAG Hungerford award for an unpublished manuscript.

The story is set in southwest Sumatra, Indonesia. It starts a couple of months after the bombing of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta in September 2004 and ends just after the tsunami hit Aceh on 26 December 2004. It concerns a young women, Penny, who had previously lived in Indonesia as a teen, but is returning to have "a break" from her boyfriend Josh who is 14 years older than she. Penny has lined up a job on a surfing resort run by expat Shane, but arrives early to have a holiday. That's the set up. The novel then explores the political and personal relationships that develop (or pre-exist) between the locals and the expat community, and within the expat community itself, in a tense situation where corruption and bullying is rife, and fundamentalist Islam is on the rise.

As we frequently do, we started by asking members for a quick summary of their responses to the book. Here is the gist:

  • The book raised lots of interesting issues about culture clashes but also the importance of Western visitors for the Indonesian economy. It was a good page turner.  (left on our Facebook Page by an absent member)
  • It has some lovely expressions and gets you in quickly. It's a well-crafted story that made you feel you were experiencing it. The ending came suddenly. The Islam aspect was interesting, as was how Australians are viewed by the Balinese.
  • It's sophisticated for a young novelist, and is interesting for the breadth of ideas covered, including the discussions about religion. It was good to see a story about Australians who don't only think about drinking beer. 
  • It brought back vivid memories for some of our members of their trips to Indonesia in the 1970s, but they noted that it doesn't depict the Indonesia they remembered (and it made some nostalgic). 
  • It effectively explores the issue of First World guilt experienced by tourists in countries where the inhabitants are comparatively poor.
  • It built up suspense well, and effectively presented youth culture.
  • It's an engrossing book. It captures her character's immersion in the landscape well. It also shows how Westerners can be unaware of menace, and thereby come unstuck. It also explores what it means to be a tourist, how tourists behave and it examines how we Australians relate to our neighbours. 
We spent quite a bit of time on reminiscences, including looking at a map to plot exactly where the novel is set (though the place itself is fictional). We talked about how Indonesia comprises many countries in one country, that it is (has been) dominated by the Javanese, but in fact encompasses several different religions and cultures.

We all liked Ibu Ayu who ran the tourist bungalow compound where Penny stays at the beginning of the novel. Ibu Ayu comes across as a somewhat grounded matriarch. And we thought the book also covered well the wide range of expats/tourists you find in places like this - the aggressive, the insensitive, the idealistic and the gentle. Several members loved the food descriptions, and want to try nasi campur!

We discussed corruption, particularly regarding the policemen. One member found Penny's attitude to  the supernatural too "credulous" while others found it believable in the context.

One member mentioned Dickie's strategy for handling a story set in a country with a different language: she sometimes translated the Indonesian words she used, and other times she let the context make it clear. We thought this worked most of the time, but a member noted that the glossary in the Reading Group notes on the publisher's website was useful.

Given the very specific time-setting of the novel and the motif of political unrest running through the novel, we spent a bit of time talking about the novel's political themes. In the interview included with the Reading Group notes (link above), Dickie responds to a question about the timing:

Troppo is set two years after the Bali bombings, a year after the bombing outside the JW Marriott Hotel, and two months after the bombing of the Australian embassy in Jakarta. This context is important for Troppo, as some of the themes explored are the rise of fundamental Islam and the coexistence of Islam and traditional beliefs. At the time of writing, as a student of journalism, I was also aware of the two dimensional depictions of Islam in the media, and wanted to create rounded characters and discussions based on some of the stickier topics I liked to discuss with my Muslim friends. Has the relationship changed? Of course, things are always in a state of flux. However, our news media is now less concerned with Jemaah Islamiyah, and more concerned with the rise of Islamic State, which no one had heard of ten years ago. So the shape of fundamental Islam has also changed.

We teased this out a little, believing that Indonesia has traditionally managed to counterbalance multiple religions, marring them with local beliefs and practices. When questioned by Penny, Ibu Ayu doesn't see Islam as a problem, believing her region manages the "mix". However, we saw Shane's resort operating in the colonial style. He doesn't try to work with the local people. Shane's resort could be "read" as a metaphor for a more systemic breakdown in the society.

We discussed some of the Reading Group questions, such as what does Australia think of Indonesia - and vice versa - then and now. This resulted in a discussion of language teaching in schools. We remembered that in the 1970s and 80s, Indonesian was the popular language at schools, but this moved on to Japanese in the 90s and then Chinese, aligning it seems to us with prevailing foreign policy.

A couple of the questions related to Penny. One asked whether her perception of herself is different to how others see her. One member questioned the question, suggesting that such a difference of perception would not be unusual, but we soldiered on. We decided that those in the Batu Batur community seemed to see her as risk-taking (and not always in the positive sense!) while boyfriend Josh saw her as directionless, without a plan. His assessment provided the impetus for her to make the decision she does at the end. Another question asked whether her character develops. In general we thought not a lot, though by the end she is more certain about who she is and what she wants from her life, which is to live "by choice, on a fault-line".

Finally, we all enjoyed the writing, and couldn't resist sharing some favourites:

The light in the bungalow shifts from a sun-kissed wood colour to glazed ceramic greens. Outside, a bouquet of fresh rain. (p. 149)
I take a sip of my coffee. Black flecks of vanilla dust the foam. I place it reverently back in its saucer. It's the best coffee I have ever tasted. (p. 169)
It's interesting to observe the way power animates a person, how it swells the chest, deepens the voice, hardens the handshake. (p. 174)
The night is young. The mozzie coil has only just begun its inward inch (p. 198)

All in all, it was a lively discussion. As usual, we didn't come to major conclusions, but we all agreed it was a great read. We shared many ideas about travel, discussed our relationship with Indonesia, and enjoyed reading the ideas and opinions of a young writer. We look forward to Dickie's next novel!

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Travels with my Aunt by Graham Greene

Many Minerva members gathered to discuss this novel. It was a happy meeting after an enjoyable read.

The story revolves around a middle-aged, retired bank manager Henry who meets his Aunt Augusta at his mother’s funeral.  His father died 40 years earlier.  Henry cultivates dahlias but has little else in his life. Aunt Augusta tells Henry that his father ‘needed bedrooms for more than sleep’ so many of us guessed that Aunt Augusta was more than she let on. (At 7% Henry says ‘My poor stepmother … I shall never be able to think of anyone else as my mother’.)

They both wanted to see more of each other after a walk at the cemetery so began their visits to various places, including Paris and Brighton. The Aunt has never married either but has had many relationships. Wordsworth is the current man in love with Henry’s Aunt and he floats in and out of the story. Henry and Augusta visit Boulogne and meet a lonely old woman still pining for his father. This shocks Henry and Aunt Augusta. The story gets complicated with comings and goings and they end up in South America surprisingly. Augusta has returned to one of her elderly former lovers and Henry is about to wed a 16 year old and be involved in a smuggling racket.  And finally there is confirmation that Aunt Augusta is Henry’s Mum.

The main point of this book we thought was its treatment of Love. Love comes in all shapes and sizes. There are so many types of love described – aunt’s love, mother’s love, romantic love, romantic fantasies, and love for objects (eg dahlias and money). There is also Aunt Augusta’s love for all men. There is also the love of travel and variety.

It is a very funny novel and this was even more obvious in the audio version according to one of our members. The two dominant voices are Henry and Aunt Augusta. They are great characters and we enjoyed the funny situations and the funny language such as ‘Pekinese eyes’. Aunt Augusta smuggling gold ingots in the base of candles across Europe is both shocking and funny. The idea that a staid bank manager couldn’t propose to a young woman, Miss Keane, even if she basically asked for it was probably strange rather than funny. The house of multiple rooms is also funny where an elderly man could live out his last few years, spending a week in each different room, pretending he is travelling. Greene claimed that this book was written for a laugh even though it has some darker tones.

Other funny things include Henry’s love of dahlias and his concern for his mower in the rain. Most of us like dahlias but one member put them in the same category as gladioli, which are inherently funny (post-Dame Edna). We laugh at Henry rather than with him but he does evoke sympathy for his innocence and silliness. Henry’s naivetĂ© is amusing in a sad way – was he a closet homosexual? Probably not, we decided later when discussing the unusual ending.

The book portrays England in the 60’s (it was published in 1969/70). Wordsworth, the only black man in the book, is treated with some contempt we felt. For instance, his language is strange, quite different from everyone else. He is also treated badly by Aunt Augusta. One critic said that it is typical 1960’s stereotyping, whereas another critic said that he was treated humanely.
We had a general discussion about ‘Aunts’ in literature with Lady Catherine de Burgh being the supreme example. We decided that this aunt was right in deciding to hand over the baby. She would not have been a good mother.  She was a free spirit and an outrageous character in comparison to her very conforming and moral ‘nephew’. The comparison of the characters led to a discussion about nature versus nurture.

Graham Greene himself has strong links to this book in that his first name is Henry and he lived quite a wild life not dissimilar to that of Aunt Augusta. He had been a spy and a friend of spies as is the character of Tooley’s dad (O’Toole) whom Henry meets briefly on board a vessel in South America.

There is also a dark side to this story. There is the contrary conclusion, which shows Henry’s morals have certainly changed under the influence of his rather lawless relative. Aunt Augusta though is a survivor and helps Henry to survive and gain a family, which presumably he wants. There are comments about American imperialism, which shows Greene’s antipathy to the CIA and American ‘ways’. Greene also shows great cynicism towards the ordinary Catholic and their beliefs.  Aunt Augusta’s faith is portrayed as being very shallow, but useful when necessary. Life in England at that time was also shown to be pretty awful. For instance, Henry’s mother does not have true freedom, she is very constrained and makes Henry equally restrained so he cannot enjoy life as a young man. The message seems to be that a good life could be had only if you were rich, like Henry’s former bank customers, and maybe flouting the law like Aunt Augusta.

There were many unanswered questions. Does Henry choose the new life in South America? Is he creating a real family for himself after all his years of loneliness?  Is Aunt Augusta a survivor versus the boring and mundane Henry? How does he accommodate her lack of moral fibre?

We all thought that Henry was an unreliable narrator in that he tells us some of his innermost thoughts but doesn’t know as much as the reader does in some circumstances. He is very dependent person, firstly on his mother and then his Aunt. This contrasts with Augusta’s dependence on men, who invariably are criminals.  

We finished our discussion with mention of product placement – in this case Omo, which is probably one of the first times such advertisements had been placed in a novel. Also, we pondered on the questions of the morally corrupt inheriting the world. It certainly seems so in politics in 2017.