An evening (or two, or many) with the Bloomsbury Group: Vanessa and her sister by Priya Parmar

E M Forster, Lytton Strachey, Maynard Keynes, Duncan Grant, Clive Bell, and most importantly, Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf… a bunch of undeniably privileged, smart social and cultural radicals who gathered over pastries and coffee most evenings in [what is now] Central London to discuss art, literature and life, and of course, to gossip. You are invited into that small circle, become privy to the conversations, the flirtations, the intellectual repartee and the creative energies that flow through those evenings. You get to feel the thrill, with these insiders, of reading through drafts of “Morgan’s new novel” even as you realise that it is Howards End that is being discussed. You feel the blustery winds and blue skies of the Cornish summer as you walk those paths with the Stephens women–Vanessa and Virginia–and can discern the origins of To the Lighthouse. 

Vanessa and her Sister is a fictionalised account of the early days of the Bloomsbury Group as told through in the voice of painter Vanessa Bell (nee Stephen), Virginia Woolf’s older sister. Her account reveals the tensions and the joys of the relationship between the sisters: Vanessa the sensible, grounded older sibling and the mercurial and brilliant Virginia, who veers dangerously and inescapably between sanity and madness. The intense equation between the two, marked by Vanessa’s protectiveness and Virginia’s possessiveness, is disrupted when Vanessa marries Clive Bell. Virginia, fiercely resentful of what she sees as her sister’s betrayal, begins to drive a wedge into the marriage by flirting and then successfully hijacking Clive’s affections.  Although the affair is never consummated and eventually peters out, it leads Vanessa to gradually become free not only of her marriage but also her sister’s demands. She recognizes that “Marriage is a binding, blending thing that runs on a low-burning fuel of habit and faith. Love, on the other hand, is unanchored and lissom in its fragility.” And unanchored from this marriage that has become nothing more than habit, Vanessa finds love in and with others, and of course, in her own art.

Vanessa and Virginia are no ordinary sisters; they are the heart and soul of this bright set, hosting evenings that attract some of the brightest minds of the time. Vanessa’s diary, therefore, not only takes us on a personal journey but one that gives us an intimate sense of an intellectual moment that produced some remarkable literature and art. Interspersed with Vanessa’s diary entries are letters (many from actual archives) and telegrams from members of the Group. From Lytton Strachey to Leonard Woolf (who eventually marries Virginia), from Virginia to her friend Victoria, and several intriguing notes from art critic Roger Fry to his mother. There are mentions of liaisons with Bertrand Russell and interactions with Gertrude Stein and J P Morgan, and the emergence of a post-impressionist artistic sensibility. And in the middle of all this, Vanessa makes her art and Virginia, her writing.

Priya Parmar’s book is a work of great affection and attention to detail. Walking the fine line between fact and imagination, she paints a picture that is vivid and thoughtful, in prose that speaks lightly yet with an artistry that makes you want to re-read sentences. She says, in her author’s note: “It is not easy to fictionalise the Bloomsbury Group, as their lives are so well documented. They were prolific correspondents and diarists, and there is a wealth of existing primary material. For me the difficulty came in finding enough room for invention in the negative spaces they left behind.”

She has found that room and has used it well.

Hack Attack: How the Truth Caught Up with Rupert Murdoch—Nick Davies

“If you shut up truth and bury it in the ground, it will grow and gather to itself such explosive power that the day it bursts through, it will blow up everything in its way.” Emile Zola

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

The first sign of trouble was a report in 2007 about the hacking of the telephones of three people working in Buckingham Palace. Four years later, the avalanche started by that seemingly insignificant story buried major figures in media, politics and policing. Nick Davies was the Guardian reporter at the heart of the exposé, and this is his account of how it happened. His book lays bare the extent of the power wielded by one man over British politics—a man who was not elected but who happened to own the biggest media conglomerate, News International. And given the time we are living in now, where fake news plays a significant role in shaping politics, this is a book worth reading.

It is a riveting tale—and sickening. Sickening in the way News Internationalist’s publications, especially the tabloids like the News of the World—the publication at the heart of the scandal—used any means to get a story, legality be damned. That is nothing new, but what made it different was that the News of the World journalists were accessing people’s phones and voice mails and then using quotes from those voice mails to write their stories. And this with the full knowledge of the editors.

Parallel to the phone-hacking scandal was the bid by Murdoch to buy the remaining share in the satellite TV channel BSkyB. News International already owned 39% of the channel, and Murdoch wanted to buy the remaining 61%. There were regulatory problems with the bid, which was the only thing Murdoch really cared about. He and his associates dismissed the hacking scandal, saying that the two had nothing to do with each other. They could not have been more wrong.

Initially, when the first story about the hacking came out, it was dismissed as the work of a rogue reporter at the News of the World. But Davies pursued it and uncovered a rot that went through the paper and touched those at the top, including the editor Andy Coulson whom David Cameroon appointed as his communications director (Coulson later resigned because of the phone-hacking scandal). But the most worrying thing about these revelations was just how much power News International had—many politicians cosied up to Rupert Murdoch and his associates, including his son James and Rebekah Brooks, who became editor of News of the World after Coulson. After all, they could make or break the politicians’ careers. That’s why the BBC had its funding cut—it was the only serious contender to BSkyB. Murdoch pushed, and Cameron did his bidding.

This cozy relationship between Murdoch and top politicians goes back all the way to Margaret Thatcher. In 1981, she helped Murdoch buy The Times and The Sunday Times by not referring his bid to the regulator, the Monopolies Commission, which would have blocked it. In return, Mudoch’s papers supported Thatcher.

How the story developed from something minor to an earth-shattering revelation that resulted in the Leveson Inquiry is riveting. The Guardian was the only paper that pursued the lead. The rest of Fleet Street either kept quiet or poured scorn on the paper, even when Davies found evidence of a massive cover-up by the Metropolitan Police. The turning point was the revelation that the phone of the murdered schoolgirl, Milly Dowler, was hacked. This provoked public outrage and led to the closing of News of the World and the defeat of the BSkyB bid.

Davies alternates chapters about the investigation itself with chapters giving the background, building up to the hacking scandal. I liked this because there is only so much of the power play and low behaviour I could stomach at one go. Davies uses special words for some of this behaviour: blagging (calling up companies pretending to be staff to get information) and monstering (destroying someone by publishing stories that are a mix of lies and stolen personal details). He paints a grim picture: anything goes, as long as you get the story. “In the newsroom without boundaries, there was one thing which was not tolerated: failure.” The book encapsulates the worst—and the best—of journalism.

There is victory at the end—sort of. But eventually, time passes and things go back to normal. Davies’s conclusion is sobering: “For a while, we snatched a handful of power away from one man. We did nothing to change the power of the elite.”

The Sad Part Was: Prabda Yoon, translated by Mui Poopoksakul

A man is intrigued by the spaces between the words a schoolgirl is writing in her diary, a couple discover a corpse on the roof crushed under the fallen letters from a neon sign, a group of men meet to mark the death of the woman they loved with alcohol and chillies, and a she-vampire and her son go missing.

These are some of the odd situations and people you meet in this collection of short stories by Prabda Yoon, a Thai writer. His protagonists are young people, and the stories have a strangeness to them that is intriguing. They tend to end inconclusively. And this refusal to have tidy endings works—I found myself thinking of the characters, wondering how they ended up.

Yoon plays with concepts and punctuation. The story about the schoolgirl is clarified in the note from the translator at the end—in Thai, there are no spaces between words, so the words have meanings of their own but also form compound words that mean something different. The protagonist sees the girl writing on a bus and tries to understand why she leaves so much space between her words, providing “breathing room, so each letter can inhale and exhale comfortably”. Here Yoon’s humour comes through: the man asks the girl why she writes like that and before she can answer, tells her what he thinks (yet another example of mansplaining!) until she misses her bus stop. And every time he meets her on the bus, he does the same thing, so he never actually finds out why she does it, but she knows all about his theories. In a post-modern story, Marut, a character created by Yoon, is scathing about the writer who is gave the character life.

I wasn’t sure I would enjoy this collection, but I did. It’s different—the world Yoon creates is just a little off-centre, making it interesting and unusual. The book is published by Tilted Axis Press, which publishes books that might not otherwise be translated into English, so if you’re looking to widen your reading, geographically speaking, have a look at the website. It’s not a huge selection, but has some interesting titles.

Cloudstreet: Tim Winton

“The door opened. A dozen cramped smells blew in their faces: lilac water, rot, things they didn’t recognize. Sam found a switch and a long, wide hallway suddenly jumped at them.”

Meet the central character in this book—the old house at 1, Cloud Street, in Perth. The house is almost alive: “a big, sad, two-storey affair in a garden full of fruit trees” with “iron lace in front and a bullnosed veranda. Some floors sloped and others were lumpy and singsong as you walked on them.” It can accommodate 20 people (but has only one bathroom).

1, Cloud Street, was left to the Pickles, Sam and Dolly and their children Rose, Ted and Chub, by Dolly’s brother. But the Pickles need an income so the Lambs—Lester and Oriel and their children, Fish, Quick, Elaine, Lon, Hat and Red—move in, renting half of Cloudstreet. “It’s gunna sound like a counter lunch—Lamb and Pickles, ”says Sam.

The book begins with disaster (what Sam calls “the shifty shadow”) striking both families. Sam loses four fingers on his right hand in a fishing accident. The Lambs are picnicking by the river, when the irrepressible Fish jumps in and almost drowns. He is never the same again, growing into a man-boy.

The two couples are very different. Sam and Dolly don’t do much about the bad luck that dogs them—neither of them is good with money, which doesn’t help. Sam is a compulsive gambler, spending his weekends at the race track, and Dolly is an alcoholic. It’s ironic that Sam finally gets a job at the mint.

The Lambs, on the other hand, see bad luck as something that can be beaten with hard work. They’ve barely moved in when Oriel sets up a grocery story on the ground floor of their half of the house. She is a force of nature, and the grocery store thrives, seeing off any competitors that dare to set up near her.

And the river runs through the story. Many life-changing moments, happy and sad—like Fish’s near drowning—happen on the river. But, for me, the river is in the fabric of the book. It is in Tim Winton’s writing, which echoes it: exuberant and unstoppable at times, and slow and gentle at others. The book hums with life, as the characters grow up, grow old, fight, leave, return and finally come to a sort of reconciliation.

Winton draws characters you care about, although with 13 of them, some are bound to be relegated to the sidelines. But Fish, Rose and Quick and their parents are vivid—I almost felt I knew them. Winton also throws in a touch of the otherworldly, which add to the rich tapestry he weaves—a mysterious and silent aborigine man appears at key moments; Fish has long conversations with the pig in the yard; a strange old woman is sometimes seen in the house; and no one can explain why one of the rooms smells of rotting meat. The house has its secrets and its ghosts.

Cloudstreet is about very different people learning to live together (and not always succeeding). Some of it is based on people from Winton’s family: his grand-uncle had a butchered hand, his grandmother lived in a tent in the yard (like Oriel), and there really was “a racehorse with a brief tenure in smallgoods haulage” (one of Sam’s crazy schemes). Winton wrote the book to keep alive the memory of a certain place and time, especially in today’s rapidly changing world. And he has succeeded. 1 Cloudstreet and its residents will live on. This is not the usual family saga: it is an unusual book, both in the way it’s written and the story itself. I loved it.

 

 

 

Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey—Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein

How much do you need to know about the writer to be able to enjoy their books? Nothing at all, according to Elena Ferrante, author of the Nepolitan Quartet and other books. She writes under a pseudonym and refuses to reveal her identity, insisting that her books can speak for themselves. The media hates a mystery and has turned this into a circus, with an Italian journalist claiming to have tracked down the real Elena Ferrante. Rumour even had it that she was really a man—how could a mere woman write these brilliant books? But while journalists fretted over her identity, people kept reading her books: the sales figures speak for themselves.

In this book, she reveals something of the woman behind the books. This frantumaglia (a jumble of fragments) is a collection of her interviews over the years—always by email—and her correspondence with film directors.

The interviews form the bulk of the book. Journalists keep asking her why she conceals her identity, wouldn’t it be better if she didn’t, what does she hope to achieve by it and so on, ad nauseam. I found the repetitiveness annoying and could only imagine how frustrating it must be for her. But Ferrante is very clear: once the book has been sent off to the publisher, it’s done. “I would like to think that, once my book enters the marketplace, nothing can oblige me to make the same journey. … I don’t want to accept an idea of life where the success of the self is measured by a success of the written page.”

But there are rewards for those—both journalists and directors—who engage directly with her writing. This is where she shines, describing how a story comes into being and takes shape. Ferrante is a perfectionist—until she is entirely satisfied, her writing stays private. This means that she has written more than she has published. Good writing, she believes, should say “the unsayable”, tackling issues that are often swept under the carpet. She has no time for “correct” stories, especially by women: “Better to make a mistake with the incandescent lava we have inside…than to assure ourselves success by resorting to murky, cold finds”.

The interviews are wide-ranging, and I cannot really do justice to them in this short piece. Ferrante speaks perceptively about Berlusconi (this was when he was Prime Minister), and how and why people engage with politicians like him—an issue that is still relevant today with the rise of populists. She discusses psychoanalysis and women writers, and her difficult relationship with her mother. The often fraught relationship between mothers and daughters is a theme she keeps coming back to in her books.

Because her responses to questions are in writing, the portrait that comes through is not filtered through the eyes of another person, and you get the full force of her writing. Here is Ferrante describing her mother, a seamstress, work: “The mobile skill of that hand put together the pieces of material, made the seams invisible, the pieces of fabric regained a soft continuity, a new compactness, became a dress, the shape of a female body”. Not very different from what a writer does.

Elena Ferrante comes across as fiercely individualistic, thoughtful and eloquent—all the characteristics that make her novels such a pleasure to read. I read this book cover to cover, and I’m not sure that’s the best way to read it. As I said earlier, some of it can be a bit repetitive because journalists tend to ask similar questions. And some of it can feel a bit long when you haven’t read the book she is referring to. But she is a pleasure to read, and I would recommend this book especially to writers.

To end with the big question: how much does a reader need to know about the writer to enjoy a book? I think Ferrante is right: good writing does not need the author to promote it. After all, we can’t really “know” an author—all we get are a few fragments of their lives upon which we build our image of them. So why do we need to know anything at all? I remember reading Wilfrid Owen’s poem Dulce et Decorum Est for the first time when I was 15. The power Owen’s words stunned me, although I had never heard of him. Nothing I’ve learned about him since has changed the way I feel about that poem.

Any thoughts?

 

The Glass Palace: Amitav Ghosh

Review by Kamakshi Balasubramanian

“The Glass Palace” is, for me, a beautiful title for a novel. I love the image it creates of fragility, beauty, brilliance, and utter vulnerability. For years I have reached for Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace, and until a few days ago, the sweep of the history it promised daunted me. I know how meticulous and learned Ghosh is as a historian, a landscapist, and a documentalist from reading his Sea of Poppies, Hungry Tides, and In an Antique Land. Much of the action in The Glass Palace is set in Burma, a land about which I know very, very little. I wondered if I could enter Ghosh’s immense erudition, encumbered as I am by my bottomless ignorance.

Well, what do you know? Ghosh’s protagonist –who is only 11 years old, alone, a stranger in Mandalay—took me through the tragic history of Burma’s last monarch, King Thebaw, and gave me a visceral sense of that precarious moment when beauty is about to be destroyed and stillness is about to be shattered. The hostile roads, the terrified crowds, the hitherto unattainable palace interiors, the crunch of British boots on crystalline gems, and the impending ruin of the golden land imprinted themselves in unforgettable images in my mind, thanks to Rajkumar, the urchin through whose eyes I saw it all.

Ghosh’s novel is at its best when it draws character portraits, speaks of love, loss, and pain, and puts you in places where you can touch the tendrils on vines and smell the sap on a tree. The man’s genius for evoking atmosphere is only a part of his gift. His extensive historical documentation underpins the story he tells, letting you experience through the lives of fictional characters the impact of events that changed an entire culture.

When I was reading the middle parts of the novel, I felt that my total engagement with its narrative flow and its plot was loosening. As Ghosh got more and more involved in describing social changes through technological curiosities and novelties, I got less and less interested in learning about the cars, the cameras, and the aircrafts that he documented with (for me) needless detail. It felt almost like he might have wanted to insert photos of those mechanical marvels, whose timelines conveyed what I thought was at best a tangential story.

The last sections of the novel galloped through times, places, and destinies. In one particular instance, Ghosh definitely wielded a pen that was clearly mightier than any sword. He quickly killed off characters, who were suddenly unessential to the storyline. In spite of that, this last section was profoundly affecting and I thought that is the mark of an accomplished story-teller, who can hold you in thrall even if he is madly upping the pace.

Reading this novel is highly rewarding, but I found it to be uneven in its literary quality after the first half. But so what? “Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without,” as Confucius is supposed to have said.

The Glass Palace shines and glitters, inviting in its allure. I have refrained from outlining the plot because the publisher’s blurbs do that very well. It offers riches to keep you riveted. There’s romance, there’s tragedy, there’s adventure, and there’s a whole world that can absorb you for days of binge-reading. For me, a book like that is always a sure bet.

West African Books with Unconventional Approaches to Gender and Power (from Electric Lit)

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One of the things this blog tries to do is to highlight books from outside the usual UK-US cannon. We live in a rich, varied world, and as readers, we are ideally placed to explore this richness through books. This is what lay behind the reading challenge that some of us set ourselves.

From time to time, I post articles on reading suggestions from different parts of the world. In this article, published in Electric Literature, Chinelo Okparanta, a Nigerian-American writer, lists six books by West African writers that take an unconventional look at relationships.

“In my novel, Under the Udala Trees, I explore the themes of betrayal and rebirth and happiness in the context of gender and power. In writing the novel, I imagined, unlike Ramatoulaye, a sort of happiness that existed outside of the traditional schema of marriage. Or rather, I imagined the pursuit of that sort of happiness. The fundamental desires of my protagonist, Ijeoma, are unconventional in her West African setting in the sense that she does not find her value via an attachment to a man. Lately, I’ve been interested in finding other West African authors who are also unconventional in their portrayal of love and marriage, of gender and power. The following are my top six.”

You can read the article here. You can read more about Chinelo Okparanta on her website.

The House of Belonging: David Whyte

“At the centre of this life
there is a man I want to know again.”

Do we lose something of ourselves as we scurry through life, running to make the next deadline and dealing with the mundane business of day-to-day life? David Whyte’s poems is a reminder of how important it is to come back to yourself and remember who you really are. To belong to yourself again.

Whyte finds his way back to himself though solitude and quiet: a man with no company but “his own/well peopled solitude,/entering/the silences/and chambers/of the heart/to start again.”

Whyte’s various ways of belonging are like ripples: himself and his house at the centre, “the bright home/in which I live”, the “temple of my adult aloneness/and I belong to that aloneness/as I belong to my life”. Moving out from the core are the places that shaped him: Yorkshire, where he is from, and the US, where he lives. The pull of centuries of history bind him to Yorkshire and run in his blood. His new home is a new beginning, an opportunity to be reborn. And finally, the outer ripples encircle those he knows and who are a crucial part of his life.

Whyte’s poetry is sparse and deceptively uncomplicated, packing layers of meaning into simple phrases. And like all good writing, it is something to go back to because each reading yields something new.

I have to thank my sister-in-law Gina for introducing me to David Whyte. Over the last few years, I’ve started reading poetry again, and it is a treat to discover a new poet who speaks to me. I will be going back to this collection time and again.

Old Path White Clouds: The life story of the Buddha—Thich Nhat Hahn

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Review by Kamakshi Balasubramanian

In Thich Nhat Hahn’s Old Path White Clouds, subtitled The life story of the Buddha, the first 80 chapters give us an account of the Buddha’s life and work until his death at the age of 80. The 81stchapter (the last) shows the interested reader how the Buddha’s teachings—and in a sense, the Buddha himself—have continued to live on.

Old Path White Clouds tells the life story of the man called Gautama, in order to let the reader discover how his awakening changed the world around him. In doing so, the author relies on Buddhist texts, meticulously providing necessary references. These are provided at the end of the book, with a brief summary of each chapter. I found this enormously useful, because it helps one to refer back quickly to earlier pages and refresh one’s memory about names and events, given that this is a sprawling narrative.

As a novice practitioner of Vipassana meditation, I approached this book with great interest and reverence. Almost every story I read here I have heard repeatedly in dhamma talks by teachers. That repetition seems to rejuvenate the practice of meditation for me. Many stories attributed to the Buddha are open-ended, thereby offering fresh insights every time one hears them told.

For the reader who is looking for a crisp biographical account of Gautama’s life and times, with documented historical evidence based on secular sources, this work could be a disappointment. Could be, I hasten to add, as the Buddha’s life imparts its meaning through his teachings, which were preserved for a long time in the oral tradition of chants and recitation. Thich Nhat Hahn’s story of the Buddha takes the reader gradually on the unique path of awakening, as experienced by the Buddha and preserved in chants. This exposition of the awakening and the Buddha’s message are beautifully handled, everything explained with a calm and quiet sense of purpose, delivering the teachings in the best possible way, from the simple to the increasingly complex concepts.

Again and again the Buddha is supposed to have said, about his own teachings, that one should not be attached to the teachings because those are a tool. The unforgettable allegory he employs to explain this: “The raft is not the shore.”

“Be a lamp unto yourself,” we are told. What is taught is to be experienced. This is the only way to be awakened.

The influence of the Buddha reached not only the bhikkus or ordained monks who devoted their life to meditation, in order to experience their own capacity for enlightenment, through absolute awareness of the present. He supported many lay persons, men and women, in their pursuit of enlightenment and awakening. The stories of people in positions of power, kings, princes, and wealthy merchants who followed the Buddha in his time, make for absorbing reading. Anyone who sought him and his teaching was welcome, and this is where his influence as a social reformer is most profound. He accepted people of both genders, all classes and castes, as bhikkus and bhikkunis. “The first fruit a bhikku reaps,” he is supposed to have explained to King Ajathashatru, who was once strongly opposed to the Buddha, “is to be liberated from racial, social, and caste prejudice. His human dignity is restored.”

This observation applies equally to those who believe themselves to be privileged, as well as to those who experience discrimination, social prejudice, and are downtrodden.   To repeat an allegory ascribed to the Buddha: “Everyone’s tears are salty.”

For all the uniform simplicity adopted by the bhikkus and for all the apparent absence of a hierarchy within their community (also called the sangha), I found it wonderful to read a passage towards the end of the book where the Buddha is remembered as describing several venerable bhikkus by their unique individual personalities. Sariputta is the teacher, Yashodara is the kind helper of all beings, Moggallanna represents courage and energy, Mahakassappa is the personification of simple living, and Anuruddha exemplifies diligence and great effort.

Reading this book, I travelled on the old path year by year, retreat by retreat, and season by season. I stopped and exulted in the beauty of trees and flowers, delighted in the taste of sweet tangerines, and suffered the pain of loss. Those moments passed and that’s the experience. As I immersed myself in Thich Nhat Hahn’s book, I was reminded at regular intervals not to lose myself in the story, not to lose myself in the teaching, not to cling to the pleasure (however sublime) that the reading gave me. Subtly and gently, I was nudged awake to stay aware of every moment in life, observing with attention the reality of the here and now.

There was a special reason why Old Path White Clouds came alive to me at this time. I had only recently made a trip to Bihar and seen many Buddhist sites; and therefore, with the handy map provided in this volume, events and images along the old path seemed immediate and familiar. And of course, the Buddha’s presence was the most familiar of all.

Tales of the Tikongs: Epeli Hau’ofa

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If this book were to be summed up in one sentence, it would be: “‘Development’ comes to a small Pacific island”. Tales of the Tikongs is a collection of vignettes of what happens when foreign development experts try to impose development on a happy-go-lucky people. And “impose” is the word—the so-called experts have very little idea of what the people actually need. They have a one-size-fits-all formula, which is supposed to work no matter what the reality on the ground is. It is, to quote Ogden Nash’s famous line, “the irresistible force meeting the immovable object”. No prizes for guessing who wins!

Told in a fairly simplistic style, the stories poke fun both at the people of Tiko (a fictional Pacific island) and the experts. At times it made me laugh out loud—and as someone who knows the “development” world, a lot of it felt was familiar.

“Those who believe that truth, like beauty, is straight and narrow, should not visit our country since they will be led up the garden path or sold down the river (so to speak, as we have no rivers). Truth is flexible and can be bent this way so and that way so; it can be stood on its head, hidden in a box, and be sat upon.” Moving Tiko towards development is often a losing battle for the experts, who tend to eventually give up and go home. (Except one, but he learns the ways of the Tikongs.)

There are some great stories, such as the misadventures of Pulu, lover of small animals, who is offered a bull and three cows by the government of New Zealand to could build a herd. One by one he loses all the cows. The Resident New Zealand Livestock Advisor suggests Pulu try to build his herd by taking his bull to service his neighbours’ cows with hilarious results.

And there is Ole Pasifikiwei, who collects oral traditions. He is approached by the nattily dressed Harold Minte, speaking “in the slightly condescending, though friendly tone, of a born diplomat”. Mr. Minte runs a programme for the preservation of culture projects in the Pacific and offers Ole financial assistance. Naturally, Ole has to jump through the hoops to get it. But he’s a fast learner, and before long is playing the system for everything he can get.

Tales of the Tikong is a quick read and an enjoyable one, and could be subtitled How not to develop a country. I read it as part of the reading challenge—Epeli Hau’ofa is Tongan-Fijian. Another writer I discovered in this virtual journey through the world!