Garcia Marquez: crime chronicler

Garcia Marquez: crime chronicler

Gabriel García Márquez, who died this week, is associated with “imaginary realism” but to me he was a master of crime fiction.

He didn’t need to invent lone-wolf private detectives exploring the underbelly of sunny Los Angeles: his Colombia wore its tragedy and violence on its sleeve. Every dame is in distress and every pol or cop is on the take, and there is absolutely no place for heroes. García Márquez didn’t need to invent murders. They were happening all around him, in broad daylight. The crimes he explored were not just individual violations, but the crime of an entire nation, beautifully sinking into its own mire. Read the rest of this entry »

Harder than it looks

Where’s Angkor?

The Royal Geographical Society’s Hong Kong chapter has invited me to speak on our changing understanding of Angkor and Southeast Asia pre-modern history. (It’s June 5, for anyone who’s in Hong Kong.) It requires slides and one thing I lack is a decent map of Southeast Asia’s ancient sites.

I had naively assumed a publisher could create these. My publisher (of “The Story of Angkor”) did source a map of the key monuments at Siem Reap and a map showing ancient sites in Cambodia, but it didn’t have the resources to create a map from scratch highlighting the key sites I wanted, both in and around Cambodia.

A little annoyed, I asked the guys who run the art department at my day-job office how to create or source maps – which they do occasionally for our magazines. They find it a painful, labor-intensive process. I’ve spent a day Googling around; surely there must be a simple, open-source mapmaking site or service. The high calibre of speakers at the RGS (famous explorers, historians, geographers, scientists and writers included…gulp) means I need to deliver something good.

Well, there are mapmaking sites, ranging from free to paid-f0r, but the free ones are definitely not simple. You either need to understand a bit of coding (which I do not) or you must satisfy yourself with Google Maps or Google-Map like services that allow you to tag sites but not necessarily create historical maps (such as annotating a region with a historical, out-of-use name). Cartography sites offer incredible riches for people steeped in this stuff, but for amateurs like me, they are bewildering and seem to involve a huge investment in time.

I’m probably missing a trick, so if anyone has a suggestion, please let me know. In the meantime, I’ve been playing with Google Maps, to identify a handful of key sites across the region. You can see my rather pathetic attempt here.

Chinese grievance

Chinese grievance

Excessive pride is a fault of many large, powerful countries. The Chinese rise, painstakingly tagged “peaceful” by Chinese mandarins, has been accepted by Asian neighbors on that basis. But these neighbors have concurrently tightened security relations with the US, much to China’s consternation. If China’s rise is so good for Asia as a whole – given the prosperity being generated – why do they feel a need to hide behind Uncle Sam’s skirts?

The New York Times has an interesting article about how the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight 370, with two-thirds of its 227 passengers Chinese, has frustrated China. Beijing and its military has thrown a lot of resources at finding the missing plane and its media has gone into hysterics. Of course there is the matter of hundreds of families in agony. But China is a great power and not used to being held at bay by a small Southeast Asian country; under international law, Malaysia has the right to lead the investigation. Read the rest of this entry »

Sad but true

Sad but true

Journalist Joel Brinkley is unsparing of his account of modern Cambodian history. He saves the kicker for the end, though. The first half of his book, Cambodia’s Curse, which came out in 2011, follows the national narrative from the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979 until recent years.

The second half reflects his on-the-ground reporting in the mid-2000s, detailing corruption at all levels: in the education system, in healthcare, in land dealings, among the NGOs and the foreign donor community. It is a tale of unrelenting injustice and misery.

The final chapter explains why Cambodians accept their lot. After the relentless accounting of one of the world’s most benighted countries, the people are so beaten down that they actually support their government and its coterie of ruthless but small-ball strongmen kleptocrats. Hun Sen and his ilk are frustratingly limited in talent and ambition – except when it comes to skimming. The price is a tragic loss of human potential and widespread environmental destruction.

Two parts of this account really struck me. One was Brinkley’s constant linkage of current government policy and attitude to the Angkor period. I found some of his Angkor history inaccurate, but that’s not his area of expertise. However he did hammer home the way the leadership, not just of Hun Sen but of Pol Pot, Norodom Sihanouk and preceding royals have governed by looking to the Angkor glories as a how-to manual, not just for cultural prestige. Read the rest of this entry »

Now told in e-books

Now told in e-books

My non-fiction history of Angkor civilization for tourists, The Story of Angkor, is now available as an e-book for Kindle and iBooks. The publisher, Thailand-based Silkworm Books, has finally embraced the digital world.

The company’s founder, Trasvin Jittidecharak, explained in a recent letter to her authors that this was not as straightforward as it sounds. Silkworm is late to the digital party but so are other many publishers who specialize in Asian literature and affairs. From the mundane task of converting files to the bigger issue of untangling legacy business relationships, the shift to e-books is neither cheap nor simple

But the trend is clear. The sale of tablets, Kindles and other e-readers has skyrocketed past the sale of print books. I use both, and have found the usual determinant is simply what’s available, when.

The Story of Angkor is perfect for e-books. I deliberately wrote it short, because I wanted something portable and easy to read. Although none of my research was original, most of what’s available on Angkor is academic and pretty unreadable. My book is meant to fill that gap.

The Story of Angkor puts the rise and fall of this civilization, which once bestrode Southeast Asia, in a global context. It covers trade, religion, politics, art and architecture, and ecological issues, offering a bird’s eye perspective – but in just a bit over 100 pages. People touring the amazing monuments in Cambodia or who are interested in the country’s history will now be able to download the book – which is otherwise available only in select airport shops. (It’s also available for sale at the Asia Society in Hong Kong.)

China would rather not discuss Ukraine

China would rather not discuss Ukraine

China’s foreign policy since Deng has been led by the concept of non-interference. It lambasts the US and Europe for intervening in conflicts in other countries, and uses non-interference to justify its dealings with terrible regimes, such as Sudan and Zimbabwe. But the crisis in Crimea is making a mockery of the notion.

Amid all the headlines in recent days involving Vladimir Putin’s trading barbs with leaders in the West, you won’t have seen anything about the other permanent member of the UN Security Council. Russia’s aggression in Crimea is not China’s fight. But it does raise issues about China’s principles. Read the rest of this entry »

But what about Japan?

But what about Japan?

I watched “Monuments Men” in the cinema. The movie, directed by George Clooney, is not very good, which is a pity, because a simple Wikipedia entry on the topic reveals a fascinating story.

The US government, partly at the behest of Harvard art historians, really did organize teams within the military to work on the front lines to protect European artistic and architectural treasures; to recover vast amounts of art and treasure systematically looted by the Nazis; and where possible restore property to its former owners. This is the first time in history that protection of cultural monuments was formally incorporated into a military campaign.

I mention this because my novel, Gaijin Cowgirl, involves the equally systematic looting of conquered lands by the Japanese during World War 2. The Japanese mission was organized by the Imperial palace (or at least the military junta installed a prince in order to keep errant groups from pilfering what the Japanese stole – to prevent meta-theft). The Japanese program was far older than the conventional dates of the war, however, with roots going back to its 19th century occupation of Korea, and gaining speed once Japan conquered Manchuria. Read the rest of this entry »

Literature bridges cultures, even "Gaijin Cowgirl"

Literature bridges cultures, even “Gaijin Cowgirl”

The Irrawaddy Literary Festival provided a surprising window into today’s Myanmar. As I wrote earlier, a nebulous clique of rival Mandalay poets and writers allegedly sought to destroy the festival by getting the Minister of Culture to revoke his approval of the event’s being held at Kuthodaw Pagoda at the very last minute.

The event went ahead anyway at the Mandalay Hill Resort. There was some initial chaos, but everyone expected that and carried on in good humor. Just as the political intrigue showed the opaque, corrupt nature of power, so too did the readiness of the local organizers and volunteers to keep everything on track – with a smile – show the admirable qualities of the Burmese. Read the rest of this entry »

Wisdom from the patron

Wisdom from the patron

Day two of the Irrawaddy Literary Festival – kicked out of Kuthodaw Pagoda and removed to a pleasant hotel – has been like being in an amiable zoo. The highlight, bringing in hundreds of people, was of course Aung San Suu Kyi, serving as patron of the event.

As an attending author I was able to get into the small chamber where she spoke in conversation with Joan Bakewell, a British Dame (upper case, for the record) and a public figure of some renown in the UK.

The room was tense, eager, but a little bit mad. I mean actually insane. A figure like Suu Kyi inspires adoration in people that becomes blind. She is of course a great leader who deserves enormous respect, but people – foreigners – who are overly awed can look a bit silly. Like all those ridiculous people at American political conventions wearing too many buttons. The Burmese people are equally awed, and were just as keen to get inside the venue, but at least she’s their leader. Read the rest of this entry »

Kuthodaw Pagoda: not welcome here

Kuthodaw Pagoda: not welcome here

Business in newly opened countries is always fraught with risk. A personal example: Myanmar’s Ministry of Culture has basically shut down the second annual Irrawaddy Literary Festival hours before it was meant to kick off.

I am here in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second city, for the literary festival, which is meant to celebrate open discussion and the search for truth via literature, storytelling and sharing experiences through the arts. Thursday, February 13, at 3pm, the day before the gig’s official opening ceremony, the organizer received a letter from the culture minister in Naypyidaw (the capital) expressing concerns over the venue of the event. Read the rest of this entry »