Review: Unrest – worth the wait for Singapore literature prize winner



by Yeng Pway Ngon (translated by Jeremy Tiang)

Balestier Press

4 stars

For logistical, commercial and territorial reasons, books rarely circulate much outside the market they were published in. Books published in Asia can as a result often, regardless of merit, end up largely unknown outside a relatively small domestic market, something especially true when the book was originally published in a language other than English.

Yeng Pway Ngon’s Unrest has a long journey. Originally published in Chinese, Unrest won the 2004 Singapore Literature Prize. It took the better part of a decade for the English translation to become available in an edition from Math Paper Press in 2012. The new, evidently revised edition is from Balestier Press and is, for the first time, generally available internationally.

Unrest focuses on a single night of middle-aged marital infidelity in Hong Kong. The event itself, which takes place in 1987, is unremarkable, even banal. But the protagonists had known each other 30 years earlier in Singapore and from this strand a novel emerges – explicitly so, for the author inserts himself into the novel, addressing both readers and characters directly.

There is a strand of politics running through the book: the four main characters had all been politically active in what was then colonial Malaya. Weikang ends up going to China and inevitably gets caught up in the Cultural Revolution. Daming and Ziqin set out for mainland China, but once in Hong Kong, get waylaid and ultimately seduced by a more capitalist way of life. Guoliang, the fourth and most introverted of the quartet – and who had a homosexual encounter with Weikang – marries and remains behind in Singapore.

This is not, however, a political novel. The characters age and become disillusioned, but none seem to regret the loss of earlier ideals. The “unrest” of the title at first appears to be a political reference, but it is – as made clear in the novel’s last line – an emotional, if not quite romantic, one. The novel is almost domestic in its tracing of the trajectory of quite ordinary lives through Singapore, Hong Kong and China.

Unrest benefits tremendously from the efforts of its translator Jeremy Tiang. Many works in translation, especially from Chinese, feel translated. This one does not; indeed, if it were not for the acknowledgement of the cover, there is little to give away that it is translated at all. The result lacks any of the stiffness of language that sometimes bedevils translations from Chinese. Tiang is a fine writer in his own right.

Yeng evidently had structure on his mind when he wrote Unrest. The plot bounces between the four protagonists’ points of view, all unreliable, and back-and-forth in time. The true nature of the central tryst evolves piece by piece with several false turns and dead ends. The novel is something of a slow burn, becoming progressively more interesting as it – and the characters – unfold.

Yeng also seems able to capture the single detail or observation that evokes not just the setting, but also the way it is viewed by character in question: the song playing over the train sound system, the interior of a subdivided Wan Chai flat, tofu on a Singapore street or the sparkling Hong Kong skyline.

However, Yeng seems not to have been content to write a finely observed, interestingly constructed novel. The intrusion of the author into the novel seems self-indulgent rather than constructive; references to French philosopher Roland Barthes are something of a tip-off.

Making the characters explicit authorial constructions risks having the reader lose interest in them; when one of the characters starts answering back, it feels like a sort of shtick.

Not that this should in any way deter readers from the picking the novel up. Unrest sits at the intersection of several small literary circles: Southeast Asian fiction, Southeast Asian fiction in translation, fiction in translation from Chinese, and fiction (at least in English) from former British colonies in East Asia which doesn’t feature expats.

When English-language readers finally get this uncommon chance to lift the veil on the lives of people from what will be for many a far-off place, they will find that – the perhaps exotic setting apart – human concerns, anxieties, inconsistencies and failings are pretty much universal.

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