Catching the Pacific drift

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 January, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 January, 1993, 12:00am

RIM OF FIRE: Short Stories from the Pacific Rim Edited by Trevor Carolan (Vintage, $79) ENGLISH language readers in Asia are often frustrated by their lack of access to local writers. Translations from Asian languages are few and far between, and often of indifferent quality.

Trevor Carolan, who teaches literature and something called ''East-West comparative studies'' in Vancouver, has attempted to tackle this problem by editing a collection containing works by writers in 13 countries.

He says that the impetus for this anthology came from the Korean poet Kim Chi-ha who, when asked what was being done to improve the awareness of Western writers among Asian readers, turned the question on its head and suggested that it would be far more constructive if something were done to create a greater awareness of Asian writers in the West.

Mr Kim has a point. It is particularly striking that the contemporary literature of the Pacific Rim countries is so little explored in the West while bands of calculator-wielding businessmen and financial analysts pour into the area, attracted by its considerable economic potential.

Rim of Fire performs a small, but highly useful role in breaking down the communication barriers. However it does so in a very surprising way. Mr Carolan's selection has focused on stories which, with no more than a couple of exceptions, reflect a resolute pessimism and fatalism of the most depressing nature.

I wonder quite how representative this is of the many works on offer. Living in Hongkong and travelling widely throughout Southeast Asia, I am continually struck by the optimism of the people. You rarely meet anyone who expects their children or grandchildren to lead anything but more satisfactory lives than themselves. The belief in progress is quite unshakeable.

Yet the stories contained in this collection reflect an entirely different outlook. Japanese writer Kuniko Mukoda sums up the prevailing feeling of this anthology with the one word title of her story: Doubt. This is a beautifully crafted tale about the ambivalent feelings of a dutiful son as he joins his father by his deathbed. The father and son were clearly not close but the bond of family and filial duty bring them together as the old man prepares to die.

From Korea Mr Carolan has selected a story by the famous writer O Chung-hui. It is set during the grim years of the Korean war when the people were so dirt poor that one of the girls in the story dreams of escape from her poverty by becoming ''a GI's whore''. The narrator is also a young girl, floundering in a world turned upside down by seemingly distant events which are rarely referred to but overlay her childhood.

THERE are also reminders of Korea's intense racism. ''Our families lived right next to Chinatown,'' says the girl, ''but we children were the only ones interested in the Chinese. The grown-ups referred to them indifferently as 'Chinks'.'' Fascinated but afraid of the Chinese she develops a strange non-verbal relationship with a Chinese man, the meaning of the relationship is ambiguous but he seems to offer the prospect of entry to another world, so much better than her own.

From China itself there are two chilling reminders of the way that authoritarian societies distort normal human relationships. The exiled author Zhao Zhenkai, who writes under the pen name of Bei Dao, offers a Kafkaesque story of an inquisitive reporter whose curiosity about the house at 13 Happiness Street leads him to incarceration in a mental asylum.

If that were not depressing enough the Shanghainese writer Zhu Lin has a truly unsettling tale of a stalwart Communist Party functionary who has given her entire life to upholding the most severe of the party's doctrines, to the extent of alienating her own family after ordering the abortion of her daughter-in-law's baby in line with the one-child policy.

The Party and her position of importance in local affairs had been everything to her, but in retirement she begins to yearn for a reconciliation with her daughter-in-law.

If this were merely a tale of a petty tyrant getting her comeuppance, it would be of only marginal interest. However Ms Zhu has the ability to see life through the woman's eyes and show how she is motivated to do what she does.

This is instructive reading for anyone wanting to understand why the Communist Party has not collapsed in China.

BO Yang, the pseudonym of Kaifeng born Kuo Yi-tung, now lives on the other side of the Taiwan Strait. Like many of his colleagues in China, he too has suffered at the hands of official disapproval. His best known work is the controversial book The Ugly Chinaman but in this collection we see a more gentle side of the author in a dreamlike tale of lost love and missed opportunity.

Some of the stories were written in English, like Shirley Lim Geok-lin's touching story about Mr Tang's ''second family'' and his rebellious daughter Kim Li.

F. (Frankie) Sionil Jose, one of the grand old men of Philippine literature, is in another class. In the ironically titled story Progress, he captures the spirit of his country's sullen and corrupt bureaucracy through the eyes of a minor provincial civilservant seeking to obtain official approval for her promotion.

Like Zhu Lin's story, Frankie Sionil's simple story tells the reader far more about Philippine society than many, far lengthier, works of non-fiction.

This is a truly wonderful collection, helped along by the uniformly high standard of translation. The only problem is Mr Carolan's tendency to take dissident and anti-establishment writers as being the most representative of their nation's storytellers.

In Mr Carolan's defence it should be noted that in some countries, China and Indonesia spring to mind, it is difficult for the honest writer not to incur the wrath of the authorities.

These authoritarian states are sufficiently paranoid to see threats to society in all manifestations of honest observation.

Maybe a second anthology will broaden the scope of the selected writers. I would love to read more.