Saturday, June 21, 2008

In the Air

It's not so much like flying than tumbling groundwards with a lot of care.

When the aircraft took off from the runway it felt just like a holiday, with the same rumblerumblerumble under the wheels, the same G-force as in a Boeing 737 takeoff. Hell, it even had safety belt lights turned on. When the aircraft was in the air you could pick out certain buildings for fun, like the camp in Pasir Ris.

When they pushed open the door, it was an end to all that stoically pretending to be not afraid of the jump.

So there was a sort of a line-up and the jumpmasters pushed you out one by one saying "Go!", which means that when you're at the fore looking to the aft you saw the number of people standing between you and the door disappear unnervingly quickly. And the wind was loud and so were the deployment bags flapping in the wind.

So it goes like this:
"Go! frrfrr Go! frrrfrrr Go! frrrrrr Go!"

And then you were out. Whether you had jumped out yourself or was pushed out was not of your concern now. Your eyes are closed and you see white, because you are outside in the world of light, falling free.

And after a count of three (thousand) something tugs your shoulder gently and you look up and say oo, what a big flapping canopy.

You can see a long way off from circa 300m above ground level, all the way to the horizon and sunset. So it's a pity that your chief worry is about the direction that is downwards. The people in the drop zone look very, very small. The drop zone, fortunately however, does not look very small, so you can easily steer into it.
You can see the other jumpers too. Sometimes they get too close. You're supposed to scream at them to make them go away.

You feel that you're not going down very fast, even though you actually are. When you're close enough to the ground to make out the blades of the grass, you can see that the ground is moving very quickly upwards. When it hits you, you could fall gracefully to the side or crumple up awkwardly like an idiot, which was what I did. Crumpling up awkwardly is habit-forming as well as hazardous to your ankle, so it's something you shouldn't do.

Walking back to the hangar with friends was fun because everyone had a lot of things to say. Otherwise, it was all boring work from then on.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Wolf Totem

Wolf Totem, Jiang Rong 2004
Picked up this book again after two years of not reading it. The first time that happened, I was in Hungary, a nation born on the steppes, so it was appropriate enough. Today the English translation has come out, and it should be quite interesting to read the same book twice in Chinese and English.

The English translation is a little unwieldy, even though it was translated by someone named Howard Goldblatt. Or maybe because it was translated by someone named Howard Goldblatt.

The author, Lu Jiamin (aka Jiang Rong) spends much of the novel obsessing about the wolf packs and their encounters with the Mongols in the Olonbulag, an area of fertile pastures in the east of Inner Mongolia. He feeds from the endless cycles of feuds between wolf and man that characterised the everyday pasture life, to form the main body of the novel: The charged and dramatic narration of such feuds is best epitomised in Chapter 5, where a herd of war horses was massacred by a pack of wolves whose cubs had been stolen by the Mongols. The wolves, with superior strategy and deathly will, decimated the herd in the blizzard and almost took the horse-herd with them. The description is even more chilling when the others came and dug out the horse corpses: all of them, even some of the wolves, had been squished to death like bugs.

Out of a very Chinese propensity to pontificate, Jiang Rong enjoys spending long paragraphs praising the wolves in their art of war, their environmentalism, their self-pride and love of freedom, etc. Interspersed within the feud narrative were also some anecdotes of wolf encounters by the Mongols in Ujimchin, and conversations between the protagonist Chen Zhen and his close friends, which serves such a purpose.

This pontificating is probably the reason why the human characters in Wolf Totem are unrealistic, and one relates better to the wolves and the herds than to the humans sometimes. Chen Zhen and the Mongols are ever in unison: the ideas they express often add on to one another, whereas the outsiders, who were hell-bent on exterminating the wolves, were perpetually and utterly obstinate. Talking to Bao Shungui, the production brigade leader, was like halting an avalanche. The Mongols try to persuade him, even gang up against him, but their protests were effortlessly dispersed on the mention of study sessions, and they can't do anything but tear when Bao Shungui commits such atrocities like killing swans for food.

There is another inexplicable twist in the story, when Chen Zhen brought up the wolf cub, knowing full well that it was a cultural taboo in the Olonbulag and that he will earn the ostracism of the Mongols, especially his mentor and foster father. Despite his admiration for the wolves and desire to be like them, he treats the wolf cub with mollycoddling care. The story ended in his failure: The wolf cub can never be reunited with the Olonbulag pack, whose tongue he had forgotten; Chen had blunted his teeth for safety, which robbed him of a chance in the wild. On the other hand the wolf's spirit was as indomitable as his kin, and Chen was forced to kill him "while there's still a little bit of wolf in him."

Why so frustrating? To push the story forward, perhaps. Like much of the pastures in Inner Mongolia, the Olonbulag was going to hell anyway, and at the time of writing, the Gobi was already knocking on Beijing's front door. So it is understandable that many of the turns in the narrative are half-formed in favour of the didactism, and if you read it in Chinese, you might not notice it at all.

After the epilogue was an essay, thinly disguised as a conversation between Chen Zhen and Yang Ke. It summarily talked about the spirit of the wolf in the ancestors of the Chinese and the barbarians that were their neighbours, how it was diminished and revived at various times of Chinese history, and that the best for us if the wolf bits and the sheep bits in the Chinese character "are in balance, with a little more of wolf than sheep." It was a good and informative read, though not entirely convincing, and now there's more than a few questions up my head that I have to answer.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Between the Work Hours

Films and books that I have watched and read, is watching or reading, or will watch or read in this period

The Atom Station (Magnus Magnusson transl.)Jesus of Nazareth狼图腾Wolf Totem (Howard Goldblatt transl.)

Atómstöðin / The Atom Station (1948 transl. 1961) by Halldór Laxness
Crow's Head (1990) by Anna Lewins
Jesus of Nazareth (2007) by H.H. Pope Benedict XVI
狼图腾 / Wolf Totem (2004 transl. 2008) by Jiang Rong (both versions!)

Schindler's ListThe Journals of Knud RasmussenMar AdentroParadise Now

Schindler's List (1993) directed by Stephen Spielberg
The Journals of Knud Rasmussen (2006) directed by Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn
Mar Adentro / The Sea Within (2004) directed by Alejandro Amenábar
الجنّة الآن / Paradise Now (2005) directed by Hany Abu-Assad

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Between the Good Times

On Good Times
The months that precede are perched precariously between two periods that I call good times. It is a euphemism, made in the express purpose of granting the undersigned a certain cold comfort and putting off the other people. Good Times, indeed, ha! More like where Bad Commandos go when they die. And Good ones too, for that matter.

These preceding weeks have given me an opportunity to mug, the opportunity to meet up with old schoolmates, to learn something which we only dimly realise would turn out to be useful for many years after we're chucked back into the world of civilians. And, using the time left over, to read and listen to French music. And Tri Yann's 1985 release, Anniverscène, is like no other French music.

What the good times bring is a quite different kind of pleasure. It is good, for example, to be among obsessive fellow trainees who push each other on, and away from shirkers who wake up an hour late in the morning (but they don't get to do that in the Good Times, either). It is good when all you ever worried about was within camp confines, about training, within your practical reach. You read less books. You have to memorise lyrics and sing to yourself when you're bored. Your grammar goes down by a couple of notches but it's still OK. As far as Good Times are concerned, you're prepared for anything.

On the Dictionary of Bullshit
"An essential field guide for all those who want to keep their Bullshit detectors in fighting trim."

It is in this book I understood what my GP tutors meant when they suggested that writing a proper GP essay is not equivalent to writing in my blog and I should refrain from waffling so much i.e. am guilty for pushing metaphors off high cliffs, utilising big words that serve more to decorate than to clarify, etc.

Mainly, the compilation by Nick Webb reveals the individual stockphrases used by politicians and corporate leaders (fair game) to evade responsibility, distract people from pertinent moral issues and generally filling up the white space of public judgement. Apart from that there were also words which have their meanings twisted, their definitions arbitrarily expanded and clichés which are actually vivid expressions that refer to things of the past that people have forgotten about.

The compilation leaves much to be desired, so I find it good that Webb opens it up to readers' contributions. Perhaps I should ask him why "liberal" is a political-bullshit-word while "conservative" isn't, and that I've always thought that the word "tradition" tended to draw flak more than it houses pleasant connotations. Nevertheless, I'm glad I found and read this book, and already I've been testing my newly-primed bullshit detector on the latest issue of TIME. It seems to work pretty well.

I had a go at compiling such stock phrases in a short story some time ago, titled "Political Swearwords". It probably isn't long before I do another one. "Postmodern Swearwords", perhaps? It's not as if the champions of postmodern discourse hasn't churned up their own share of waffle.