Sunday, November 22, 2015

Digital World

Another half hour before everyone knocked off for the weekend, my colleague asked our despatch to collect a translated document from the court interpreter and brought it back to the office. The distance between the court and our office is one kilometer away and it  should take five to ten minutes or less for a return trip on a scooter.

Fifteen minutes later, I asked my colleague if our staff was returning with the documents. She said “ yes” because she told him to do that .

Half hour later, there was no sign of him.

'Ambit Balik'  literally means 'bring back' in Malay language. When she called him, he was on his way home and he agreed to turn around. My colleague asked him to 'ambil balik' and he had thought it meant 'ambil balik rumah'. Bring home. 

My colleague said she should have been more precise but I thought her instruction was clear enough given that it was not yet time to knock off from work. The staff was thinking about heading home thus he had interpreted what she had said about bringing back the documents to mean bringing them back home. It definitely made no sense for him to bring home the documents over the weekend. Often I feel that it does not need  rocket science for staff to understand that they should  check alignments and spelling before printing out any documents. Since they leave everything to the professionals, perhaps it is time we invent robots who can be programmed to assist some of us in doing the mundane part of our work.

I feel I am becoming an alien as I notice that people do not understand what I am saying and I am baffled as to the size of micro-managing  necessary to get a piece of work done according to my specifications. It can be exhausting as I usually assume that everyone has a certain degree of common sense. 

Each day everyone is distracted, not only we are participating in our daily physical activities, we also have the social media and the virtual world to manage and occupy our time with. We are definitely keeping ourselves so very busy. Often I find that reading and responding to these whats app and instant text messages can be time consuming particularly so when I have far  too many books to plough through and I cannot stop buying them.

I have recently raced through The Rise & Fall of Great Powers, an engaging read written by Tom Rachman.  From its first chapter, I need to know what actually is the story about Tooly @ Maltida  Zylberberg who is the owner of World’s End, an isolated bookshop in the Welsh countryside . There are two book worms in the story : Tooly and Humphrey Ostropoler, a self-proclaimed Russian who has a passion for reading.  The plot  takes its readers  from  1988 , 1999 to 2011. Tooly’s  real dad, Paul brings  her along with him globe trotting wherever his work takes him.  When she and Paul are in Bangkok, she is abducted by Sarah,  a woman who claims to be her mother.  Paul somehow vanishes from her life and she ends up being whisked from one country to another and across continents with Sarah showing up intermittently while her constant companion is Humphrey. One day, Duncan, an ex-boyfriend finds  her on facebook and tells her that Humphrey  is ill and in need of care. When she sees Humphrey who has lost his thick Russian accent, she becomes intrigued and ends up on a trail looking for the missing links in her growing years. While Humphrey has been responsible for her reading passion, her world views have been very much influenced by a charismatic but unreliable and  roguish man, Venn whom she has idolized  as a young girl.  Her hobby as a teenager is  to wander Manhattan, talking her way into other people’s apartments by pretending that she used to live there. While playing that game she meets Duncan who becomes her boyfriend in the late 90s. I find that Tooly is unreal because  as a child and as an adult, she is good natured, incredibly cool, detached  and smart. Nonetheless she is an endearing fictitious character.

When Tooly tends to Humphrey, she asks him.
‘“Who’s your favourite writer, Humphrey?’
“Samuel Johnson, Yeats and Kears,” he said, pronouncing the two last names to rhyme,” Kafka, Baudelaire, Baron Karl Wilhelm von Humboldr, Thomas Carlyle, Fichte, Demosthenes, Cicero, Rousseau, Aristotle , and Milton.”
“If you had to pick one.”
“That is who I pick.”
“ It’s not one.”
“Also ,” he added, as if the unmentioned might complain, ”John Locke,  Plutarch, Thomas Paine, John Stuart Mill.” ‘

Her lawyer friend , Duncan has demonstrated kindness towards Humphrey while he can be so absent in his own family life.

But Duncan was a rare presence. He missed most family dinners, often returning after the kids were in bed and departing before they rose. When home, he was pursued by emails. His respite was what Bridget termed “anger hour,” a nightly rant at the cable news channels .It was peculiar: he spewed such vitriol in that house, yet acted with notable kindness outside it . Accounts emerged from Bridget of his decency toward new hires at the firm, toward strangers, and to Humphrey in the months before Tooly arrived. Bridget once cited an entire chapter in her husband’s life of which Tooly had known nothing, how he had nursed a sick friend till the person’s death. When she inquired about this, Duncan changed the subject-he couldn’t accept praise.

Then by breakfast, he was gone. It was Bridget who poured the kids’ cereal and orange juice. She was present, involved, interested. Yet it was Duncan ‘s absence that shaped the household.’

Tooly’s present world is  set against the contemporary digital age.

‘For more than a year, Tooly had remained aloof from that computer. At most ,she tried simple Web searches like ‘ukulele.”nearly scared at the landslide of hits. Then , gradually, she explored a little further. Eventually, hours vanished there. Like a black hole, the Internet generated its own gravity, neither light nor time escaping. Cats playing the piano, breasts and genitals popping out, strangers slandering strangers. The lack of eye contact explained so much of what happened online. Including her own new habit : prowling through the past.

In recent  weeks, she had started searching for names, old ones, of lost friends, former schoolteachers, fellow pupils ,acquaintances from cities she’d left years before. Through the online murk, she spied their lives, piercing together what had happened:colleges ,employers, married to, activities, interests. An employment history on LinkedIn might suggest a glittering start – Trainee to District Manager to Vice President – followed by an unexplained Self-Employed.’

There appear to be many ideas packed in the book but  in essence the novel is about the unusual childhood of a young woman who has to piece together her own story and try to find a place where she belongs.  Only after going through more than two-third of the book, the story of Tooly’s life gradually comes together . While the  characters are quirky, complicated and flawed, the story is well orchestrated and intricately woven. I definitely want  to read the debut novel by Tom Rachman “The Imperfectionists” .

Friday, November 13, 2015

The wonder of words

When words about one’s perception can so easily be woven into another’s memory, if not phrased properly, they may be misinterpreted and misunderstood. Thus words have to be chosen to describe accurately the actual experience and one’s views, thoughts and feelings. Usage of emoticons and emojis come in handy when we do not have much to say but it also makes us feel flippant and  easily dismissed. 

Words matter, language matters. I only wish that the love of language could be taught. While multiplication tables can be taught and learnt, the reading habit must be nurtured. Words are powerful. Words persuade, words dissuade. Words describe and transcend all that define us, our beliefs, our insecurities , our hypocrisies, our truths  and the ordinary  events that shape our lives. Poignant writings touch our hearts, humour tickle and make us see the lighter side of life while thought provoking passages find its way to stir our conscience. When I stumble upon good writings, I  fervently hope that more people read them. Quite often, even very good writings have to be promoted before they are  known to the readers who are spoilt for choice. Winning a literary prize is a sure way to gain a place in the literary world, thus like all competitions, it may create envy and anxiety amongst the contestants. But can real talent be recognised and agreed upon by a prize committee where everyone has an agenda or otherwise has his or her preferences?

Lost for Words the 2014 winner of the Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction is a satire about the process by which literary prize winners emerge. It raises the questions about the place of art in our celebrity-obsessed culture.  In Lost for Words written by Edward St Aubyn, the Elysian Prize   is much  coveted by a host of authors while the Elysian jury appears to have little interest in the artistic merit of the books it nominates. Apparently, few of the jurors have bothered even to read the books, some 200 of them and  a book of Indian recipes accidentally gets on the short list along with a historical novel about Shakespeare called All the World’s a Stage and a work by a Scottish writer, “Wot u starin at”.  Malcolm Craig, a member of the parliament is the chairman of the prize committee. Amongst the jurors, Vanessa Shaw, an Oxbridge academic tells Malcolm that she is interested in especially good writing. Vanessa is  looking for the qualities that characterize a work of literature : ‘depth, beauty, structural integrity , and an ability to revive our tired imaginations with the precision of its language.’ and she has voted for the novel ‘ The Frozen Torrent’ by one debut novelist, Sam Black. Jo Cross, a well-known columnist and media personality, the first juror to be appointed on the prize committee tells Malcolm that the question she'll be asking herself as she reads a book is just how relevant is that to her readers. She is a strong advocate of the Palace Cookbook.

Right from the start, Malcolm had laid down some ground rules with a speech he made about ‘social responsibility’.
‘We have eighty thousand pounds at our disposal, as well as the promise of several hundred thousand pounds which the winner can expect to earn over the next few years, and to me it’s of paramount importance that the money goes to someone who really needs it.’
‘It’s lucky Proust or Nabokov aren’t competing this year,’ said Vanessa, ‘or Henry James, or Tolstoy, or anyone who ever sold a novel because word got out that it was worth reading, like Dickens, or Thackeray,or …’
‘All right, all right,’said Jo,’we all know that you’ve read every book under the sun, but I think Malcolm has a very good point. If I had my way I should add,”no pseuds and no aristos’.’

The serious argument is uttered by Liu Ping Wo , Chairman of Shanghai Global Assets, the new owners of the Elysian Group. He is present at the Elysian dinner when the prize winner is going to be announced.

It’s a prize for literature. I hope it will go in the direction of literature. My wife takes a great interest in these things. Personally I think that competition should be encouraged in war and sport and business, but that it makes no sense in the arts. If artist is good, nobody else can do what he or she does and therefore all comparisons are incoherent. Only the mediocre, pushing forward a commonplace view of life in a commonplace language, can really be compared, but my wife thinks that ‘least mediocre of the mediocre’ is a discouraging title for a prize. ‘

Lost for Words is witty and an enjoyable read.  Lost for Words makes us ponder : What makes a good novel and should anyone be judging ?