Photo by Santiago Caamaño
by Hugh Dunkerley
Originally conceived as one book, André Mangeot’s remarkable collections A Little Javanese and True North introduce us to a compelling storyteller. Eschewing the usual, more familiar settings for realist fiction, Mangeot’s stories take place in a variety of unusual settings. Part of the charge of the writing comes from his ability to evoke strange environments. For example, in the title story from the collection A Little Javanese, the Swedish protagonist reflects on how he at first found it hard to sleep in a Javanese village, after living in the work camp where he is employed building a dam:
Hour upon hour he’d lain there alert, missing the throb of the compound’s generator, the brilliance of arc-lights beyond the red blind. Only, of course, the forest-dark wasn’t silent; his city-dull brain merely took time to attune to its clamour. And now he was practised in knowing each voice – the underscore of crickets like pulses of static; frogs drilling in counterpoint on the sawah; behind the house the fruit bats which came to chatter and mate – now his mind could roam the hot nights in this way until sleep came.
In this story the western viewpoint of the narrator is profoundly shaken by events which are interpreted very differently by his local friends and their shaman. Ultimately he can no longer choose between his scepticism and the powers of local witchcraft.
Many of the other stories in the two books also involve outsiders who stumble on situations in which their normal moral or rational compasses no longer function. In ‘One Day in Life’ from A Little Javanese, Jorge is a UN official in Honduras who is also an aspiring writer. The story opens with Jorge writing in his notebook. ‘From now on I speak only the truth. Simple, and for me.’ But on a mundane drive he gets lost and discovers more of the truth than he had bargained for. In ‘Tajine with Madonna’, from True North, a journalist goes in search of a once famous writer who has exiled himself in a remote desert town. It soon becomes clear that Eve, the journalist, isn’t just on a professional mission. But when the writer takes her to see a ruined palace deep in the desert, events take on a momentum of their own which Eve is unable to control.
Sexuality runs through many of these stories like a disturbing undertow. In ‘Borderline’, also from True North, a chance meeting on an apparently perfect beach in Malaysia leads the main character, Hurst, to question not only his cultural attitudes, but also his sexuality. The main character in ‘Rain’, from the same collection, is, we’re told early on, keen to accumulate experience. On a business trip to Romania, he is overwhelmed by the mountains and the strangeness of the country. He saves a young woman, Katya, from a bully, but is soon embroiled in a relationship which he is helpless to direct.
However, these more westernised outsiders are not the only characters in Mangeot’s stories. In the remarkable ‘Ambition’ from A Little Javanese, Mangeot succeeds in inhabiting the character of a young Russian ski-jumper in nineteen-eighties Moscow. In addition to training hard to become an athlete, Arkady is also living through Perestroika. Mangeot brilliantly conveys the mixed emotions of hope and fear that change brings about:
Arkady was thinking about Gorbachev’s address to the Congress, his claim that everywhere attitudes were changing. Maybe they were, little by little. Arkady felt he wanted to trust, to believe. But when his thoughts ran on any distance he was anxious again. He knew his mother felt this too, as did her friends.
Arkady finds that not all attitudes are changing when he is hauled in by the police. Nonetheless, the story finishes on a note of hope, even if it is one that is tempered by what we now know happened after the collapse of the Soviet state.
One of the most moving stories in True North is ‘The Never-Still and the Stars’. It tells the story of Suhari, who lives with his parents under a road bridge in Jakarta. The story takes place over one day and recounts Suhari’s attempts to earn money by selling chewing gum to motorists in the chaotic, fume-filled traffic jams. The story is remarkable not only for its evocation of Suhari’s world, but also for the way in which it conveys Suhari’s mixture of religiosity and childish naiveté, as well as his growing self-knowledge:
He didn’t want to be good. Being good just annoyed people, made them mistrust you. Nobody survived in this city by doing the right thing or observing the law. And why should they, when nobody did right by them? But still. It was as if something, somebody, inside him was there to step in and prevent it, the moment he threatened to behave like everyone else.
The story closes with night falling and Suhari’s realisation that ‘only the rich feared the dark. The rest surely thought as he – that only the promise of night made each day bearable.’
With one exception, these stories all deal with male experience. However, this is not a weakness. Rather, male experience is a defining characteristic of the stories. In fact what Mangeot is interested in, it seems to me, are the complexities of what it is to be male in the contemporary world. Unlike some writers of earlier generations, for whom maleness was often fairly unproblematic, Mangeot refuses to shy away from the difficulties and contradictions of contemporary masculinity. Mangeot has also inherited the taut, uncompromising style of writers such as Graham Greene and John le Carré. His stories often have thriller-like qualities, but as in the best of Greene and le Carré, characterisation is never sacrificed to plot. These are thrilling stories, in the best senses of that word.