Book reviews

Portuguese Irregular Verbs, Alexander McCall-Smith.
Polygon, 2003. isbn 0 954 40756 3, rrp $19.95

The misleading title of Portuguese Irregular Verbs is the beginning of a frolic through the banal world of Professor Dr Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld. The novel follows the professor through his life as the author of a highly praised philology treatise, entitled ‘Portuguese Irregular Verbs’. Praised by his peers and flattered by his own ego, von Igelfeld convinces the reader that his academic success was ‘a work of such majesty that it dwarfed all other books in the field’. The story follows von Igelfeld’s journeys to Dublin, Goa and Venice on an insatiable quest to discover language and to promote his prowess in the knowledge of, amongst other things, irregular verbs in Portuguese.

Portuguese Irregular Verbs is an addictive work of fiction. While the triviality of Dr von Igelfeld’s life may seem tedious, the vernacular in which the story is told is delightful. As a result, the narrative drifts without any real climaxes or pitfalls, leaving the beauty in the detailed descriptions: ‘He stared at his roll. Had the honey been evenly spread, or was it too concentrated on one side?’

The story does not invite the reader to empathise with von Igelfeld’s profession, but more with his personal endeavours to make sense of a world in which he cannot quite fit. Von Igelfeld’s musings are hilarious, and his oddball observations of language and personality are more than enough to keep turning the pages.

Kate Stowell

Golden Threads: The Chinese in regional New South Wales 1850–1950, Janis Wilton.

Powerhouse Publishing, 2004. isbn 1 863 17107 X, rrp $34.95

Golden Threads is a visually captivating, beautifully presented insight into the lives and experiences of Chinese immigrants in our nation’s recent history.
In the interests of simplicity and coherence, the book is organised by theme; work, language, leisure, food, beliefs, leaving and staying. A heavy reliance on objects, photos and paintings throughout only enhances the work and provides a focal point for the text. Within each theme, Wilton weaves factual information, immigrants’ recollections, museum collections, and the ‘fluctuating attitudes of white Australia’ into a seamless account of life for early Chinese immigrants in colonial Australia. Skilfully done, it is the recollections of the subjects themselves that bring the book to life. From long hours spent labouring to weekly cricket matches, each story captures the tone and voice of its speaker providing the reader with a point of reference and adding an air of authenticity unachievable through facts and statistics alone.

Author Janis Wilton became involved with the Golden Threads project in 1997. The team’s task was to work ‘with local communities across New South Wales to research their objects, memories and other records of the Chinese presence in Australia in the 19th and early 20th centuries’. This book is a testament not only to the researchers, but to those members of the community who offered their time and memories in an effort to chronicle a crucial, yet little recognised element of Australia’s history. Golden Threads provides a compelling and insightful read for anyone with an interest in our history.

Lauren Hunt

Dark nights of the soul: A guide to finding your way through life’s ordeals, Thomas Moore.
Hodder and Staughton, 2004. isbn 0 749 92557 4, rrp $34.95

There are some books you read under the stars. Others, you read in prison. It was the election campaign and its promise of more of the same that drew me to Dark nights of the soul. Moore deals with the long lasting conditions of life which are difficult to bear and do not yield to easy consolation.

This book bridges the worlds of spirituality and psychology, offering the wisdom and experience of others to illuminate a variety of predicaments. It is well organised. Seeking consolation for the plight of being Australian in the Time of Election, I was able to read briskly through the categories of Passages and Disturbances, and so arrive at the apposite section dealing with Degradations. No easy comfort there: Moore suggests that hard times are not for instant healing, but for living through with courage and irony. After all, his homophone, Sir Thomas More, composed his best philosophy in the Tower, and then addressed his best line to the headsman, requesting him to leave his beard alone, since it had not offended.

A very reasonable book. But at the end, afflicted in the Time of Election and enduring its Aftermath, you may need more desperate remedies than books. You need role-models. Diogenes wandering through Canberra with a lamp, perhaps, or Simon Stylites sitting out the next four years on an outback pillar.

Andrew Hamilton

The people next door: Understanding Indonesia, Duncan Graham.
University of Western Australia Press, 2004. isbn 1 920 69409 9, rrp $38.95

Duncan Graham’s The people next door is founded on the premise that the desire for Australians to understand their nearest neighbours it at a low ebb. Graham’s aim is to introduce Indonesian society in a way that illustrates its vastness and complexity without getting too dense. He argues against patronising cultural judgments of the Indonesian way, but equally accepts that many things stand in the way of complete mutual acceptance. As a result, the book falls somewhere between travel advice and a sociological portrait.

Graham is anxious to promote a considered examination of culture, history and society in a climate where the ‘war on terror’ increases the chances of irrevocable divisions between people.

For a 189-page book, the topics may seem overly ambitious: geography, history, culture, cultural differences with the West and language are all covered in 34 pages or less. However, the book isn’t meant to be the last word on any of these subjects and manages to treat them quite well within the limits imposed. Unfamiliar and fascinating concepts like Indonesian mysticism and the ‘national ideology’ of Pancasila (basic principles of an independent Indonesian state within the preamble of its 1945 constitution) are introduced in an engaging style. Graham’s dry sense of humour is a welcome feature.

Above all, Graham’s portrayal of everyday life and people is what stands out. It highlights the many differences between our societies, but also makes it easier to empathise with the people of the archipelago, leaving a strong desire to meet them in the flesh.

Vincent O’Kane




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