Tag Archives: alex garland

Manila(s) and I (originally published in Ariadne’s Thread)

9 Sep

I was four when Granddad first told me about Manila. He’d been in a permanent sulk since leaving the Navy, so I was surprised to hear him speak about the place with such affection. “Took shore leave there. Back in ’41. Beautiful. Bloody modern. Elevators that went ‘whoosh’. But also pretty. Palm trees. Mangoes.” Granddad always spoke in these telegram-like sentences, as if giving orders.

Over the next few months, he’d describe how Manila had been beautified by the American architect Daniel Burnham. Its tangled streets had been widened into modern, acacia-shaded thoroughfares. Its inner city rivers were pure and clear. Lush meadows had been grown between apartment blocks and bustling vaudeville theatres. Granddad claimed Manila was cleaner and greener than anywhere in Britain at that time. Years later, I found a quote from the historian Gerald Astor that backed him up: ‘Everyone appeared placid and fearless on the profusely tree-lined streets and boulevards.’

For an officer of the Royal Navy, Manila’s pleasures were varied and affordable. Granddad enjoyed the Manila Hotel, another Burnham brainchild. Surrounded by its own custom-built park, this 500-room Art Deco spectacle boasted champagne suites and string quartets, seashell chandeliers and celebrity guests. One evening, Granddad thought he spotted the imposing whiskers of Mr Ernest Hemingway. Granddad was too shy to approach him.

Granddad bought silk suits from Chinese tailors in Intramuros, the walled city built in the late sixteenth century as the capital of the Spanish Empire in Asia. He bought cheap china to take home to my grandmother. He joined the queue of vintage cars outside a legendary café selling bibingka (rice and coconut cake) so tasty that it took several hours to prepare. He sat on the azoteas of colonial bars filling his belly with ice-cold tuba (coconut wine) and his pipe with fine local tobacco. He may also have filled his pipe with marijuana – a popular poison of that time and place – but if he had he made no mention of it.

The Army and Navy Club in Luneta Park was the place to go for pink gins, high-stakes poker games and beautiful local women. Granddad said he resisted the latter temptation. Not that the four-year-old me understood such adult things. At the club on Sundays you could play polo, golf and tennis with the British and American officers. To cool off in the evening, members would swim in the translucent waters of Manila Bay, the flower-crested island of Corregidor gleaming in the distance.

For Granddad, Manila was the happy zoo of humanity; a million different people from a million different places. Much like Enoch Powell and those imperialists who loved India but didn’t want Indians coming to Britain, Granddad marvelled over the diversity of pre-war Manila, but was later to scowl at the multiculturalism that reshaped Britain after World War II. He joked with the fast-talking Indian-Filipino traders descended from Sepoys who’d deserted during the British occupation in the 1760s. He was impressed with the erudite mestizos who belonged to the oldest and wealthiest Spanish families. He chatted with the captains of boats containing tribespeople with tattoo-covered bodies and heads flattened by skull moulding. Granddad’s memories must have been selective; I learned later that, in this de facto US colony, many locals would have been segregated from white foreigners like him.

After these nostalgic memories, there was always a point when the happiness would fall from Granddad’s eyes. He’d sneer in such a way as to bare his teeth and flare his nostrils. I’d get a bit scared.

“All went to shit in Manila,” he’d growl, indifferent to my young ears. “Japs invaded after Pearl Harbor. Wrested it from the Yanks. Place got hairier than bugger’s carpets.” Many years later, I discovered that ‘bugger’s carpets’ was 1940s slang for sideburns. “Made a bloody hash of it,” Granddad would continue. “Bloody animals. Lot of ‘em. Killed most of the men. Raped most of the women. Bloody hash.” Granddad usually left the room at this point.

These stories have stayed with me. They mark the moment I first became interested in Manila. I wanted to find out more about the Japanese invasion and why Granddad was quite so angry about it. Aged ten, I began collecting stories from veterans. I had a great uncle who’d been taken POW at Singapore and dumped in Bilibad Prison, Manila. But when I asked him for his story, he slowly replied, “I’m sorry, Tom, I just can’t go back there.”

To Granddad’s chagrin, my parents sent me to a progressive middle school run by ex-hippies who sang Bob Dylan’s anti-war songs in assembly. In my second year, I researched World War II in the Pacific and started to understand what had caused Granddad and my uncle such distress. The school books stated that the Japanese, as part of their master plan for world domination, had surprise-attacked the American forces based in the Philippines. One of my hippie teachers pointed out that, in fact, the United States had been an imperial force too, hence its presence in the Philippines in the first place. Manila changed hands twice during the war and, by the end of it, was the second most devastated city in the world after Warsaw. I found an old book of war photography from the Battle of Manila, 1945, when the Allies finally liberated Southeast Asia. The scratchy monochrome of the pictures was frank and disturbing.

A shell-shocked GI, pupils dilated behind wide-lens glasses, staggering zombie-like through rubble, holding a wounded little Filipina in his arms.

Another GI kneeling to fire a flamethrower, the outline of a Japanese just visible within the cloud of fire. The GI’s mate looking on coolly, foot resting on a shell case.

Filipino civilians executed by fleeing Japanese, face-down, limbs and backs curved into the pliable postures of rag dolls.

More corpses: Japanese commandos strewn around a bullet-holed truck. One leaning against an oil drum, arm reaching desperately for help that isn’t there. Another, barefoot and on his back, wearing a death grin, floating in a lake of oil-black blood.

One side of the Old Congress Building pristine, the other side smashed and crumbling like the facial droop of a stroke victim.

Finally, an aerial shot of the city after the Japanese surrender; eerie, blank, nothing left but ash and foundations. Indistinguishable from post-A-bomb Hiroshima.

These pictures jarred with the exotic images of pre-war Manila I had in my head. Some were so shocking that I had to force myself to look at them, telling myself that this was what Granddad’s angst had been about and that this was reality, this was important to know.


When I started A-Level History, I became obsessed by Southeast Asian liberation movements of the Cold War period. This was the influence of my parents and my progressive schooling and palpably not the influence of Granddad, the ultimate Little Englander. I came to admire figures such as Ho Chi Minh, who led the struggle for Vietnamese independence, routing first the Japanese and then the French. Later on, his socialist model of development outraged the United States, which was busy forcing its own free market system upon the world. It’s little-known that, like Fidel Castro, Ho had begun his political career as a fan of the United States; the original constitution of the Republic of Vietnam quoted the US Constitution extensively. Ho never wanted a confrontation with the Americans, but the Americans saw him as an evil commie tyrant who had to be stopped. They failed, of course, and Ho stands out in history as the only military leader ever to have defeated the United States in open warfare, even though he didn’t quite live to see the last GIs flee from Saigon in 1973.

I also learned about the Huks, the Filipino communist guerrillas who, like the Vietminh, had bravely repelled the Japanese. After the war, they took on the corrupt, US-backed administration of President Ramon Magsaysay. In protest at the Spanish-era encomienda system which kept the rural poor in a state of feudal subservience to wealthy landowners, the Huks kidnapped and assassinated politicians, robbed banks and planted bombs in both Manila and in small villages across the archipelago. Their insurrection was ultimately defeated by political concessions as much as military might.

I started arguing the Marxist-Leninist case in seminars, my peers looking on in puzzlement. I took to wearing a hammer and sickle badge I’d bought during a college trip to the Czech Republic. The man who sold it to me had said there were millions of these badges now lying unwanted in warehouses all over the old Eastern bloc; this being but eight years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Suffice to say, I never wore the badge when visiting my Granddad in his enormous house in Guildford. I suspect it would have sent him to a slightly early grave.

Amongst my fellow students, a different narrative emerged about the Philippines. The country had been re-branded to them as a vital stop on the new Grand Tour of Southeast Asia. It was a place of hedonism and adventure, a land of smiles and beautiful people. Stuffing their backpacks with copies of The Beach, Western kids flew thousands of miles to experience ‘cultural otherness’. This tended to involve heavy drinking and almost getting seduced by a misleadingly attractive female impersonator.

But when I came to ask backpackers about the Philippines, it turned out that most hadn’t actually been there. They said it was too far – a whole four hour plane ride! – from Peninsular Southeast Asia. The few who had visited bypassed Manila for pleasure spots such as Boracay Island, which they hailed as “like something out of The Beach.”

I started to look for modern novels set in Manila. Having set The Beach in Thailand, Alex Garland turned his attention to Manila in The Tesseract. While there’s no denying the narrative velocity and Faulknerian structuring of this brainy thriller, it offered me no real insight into the history or culture of the city. Like a shanty town built from salvaged materials, Garland’s Manila is a rickety composite of American movie tropes.

The lonely, blood-stained, roach-infested hotel at the start of The Tesseract recalls everyone from James M Cain to the Coen Brothers. The moustachioed, matchstick-chewing mobster Don Pepe is straight out of a Spaghetti Western. The references to Spanish-named locations (‘Sierra Madre’) evoke cowboys, Indians and Mexican bandits. Moments of slapstick violence such as the bungled shooting of a cat could have been lifted from a film by another of Garland’s contemporaries, Quentin Tarantino. Also Tarantino-esque is the book’s splicing of pop culture (junk food, comic books, videogames) with sensationalised tragedy (a baby attacked with acid, a woman driven mad with grief after losing her child to septicaemia). Perhaps Garland had read his contemporary Timothy Mo’s description of the Philippines under American rule – ‘thirty years in Hollywood’ – and took it a bit too literally. Fittingly, a movie adaptation of The Tesseract was released in 2003, and was not a success.

James Hamilton-Paterson’s Ghosts of Manila is a heady brew of crime novel and reportage. It taught me about the hundred construction workers who were buried alive in the crazed rush to complete Imelda Marcos’ vanity project, the National Film Center, in 1981. ‘Men died fully conscious, up to their waists in setting cement. After three days the stench of unreachable bodies was dreadful … Pneumatic drill bits pierced the concrete and released gouts of blood.’

Both Garland’s ‘dark city’ and Hamilton-Paterson’s ‘the Khmer Rouge in Disneyland’ are takes on Dante’s ‘city-as-hell’. Their Manilas are full of atrocity, perversion, rotten luck, broken dreams and psychotic criminals. These Manilas have been forsaken by God Himself and their denizens have turned to the supernatural, swearing they have seen vampires and horned devils. But while the lurid crimes in Ghosts of Manila (the illicit corpse trade, police protection of foreign paedophiles, a corrupt official giving a blind man a driving licence in return for a bottle of whisky) were drawn from real life, I was less convinced about The Tesseract. When the book tries to engage with the unique histrionics of Filipino Catholicism, it feels more like one of Martin Scorsese’s expletive-addled quests for redemption. In one unlikely sequence, a homeless boy hurls abuse at a good-natured Irish priest: ‘Jesus Christ! … I’m not asking about the mind of God or your fucking leg! I’m asking you if it sounds fair!’ One can almost hear the Brooklyn accent.

I wondered whether the unrelenting bleakness of these books was fair. Could any city anywhere really be that dangerous, disastrous and depressing? Were Granddad’s good times firmly locked in the past and was there now nothing positive to be said about modern Manila? I suspected that both Garland and Hamilton-Paterson had cherry-picked the most salacious aspects of reality for the sake of a good story.

I detected slightly more balance in Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard by Timothy Mo. While vice and chicanery are rife in the fictional, Manila-esque city of Gubernador de Leon, there’s also social dynamism and economic progress. Grandiose new buildings are springing up all over this go-ahead city of ‘creative entrepreneurial spontaneity’. Anything the West can do, the East can do, so Mo implies when he compares a local mining company to the McDonald’s empire. Furthermore, the poor are feeling the benefits of growth; some are ‘snowily dressed cashiers looking like starlets on $2 a day’.

Whereas Garland and Hamilton-Paterson only hint that Manila’s problems are connected to the wider world, Mo is more emphatic. In one scene, a Japanese businessman scolds the Philippines’ reputation for corruption before having to be reminded that companies from his own country are complicit in that very same corruption.

Unlike the other two writers who view Manila as a victim of ‘Pepsicolonisation’, Mo argues that US influence is waning (‘watch out America!’) and Manilans are now looking to China and Japan for their cultural cues. Gubernador de Leon is quickly establishing an identity and has a future on the world stage, providing issues such as power cuts (the ‘brownout’ of the title) can be resolved.

By contrast, Garland’s Manila is ultimately chaotic and unknowable, summed up by the guiding metaphor of the whole novel: ‘A tesseract is a four-dimensional object – a hypercube – unravelled …’ We can see the thing unravelled, but not the thing itself.’ The fractured chronology of the story, the ever-shifting narrative eye and the catalogue of unexplained motives and events all contribute to this profound sense of discord.

These novels, Granddad’s memories, history books, photographs – these were all versions of Manila, different ‘Manilas’, if you like. There were contradictions between them and I wasn’t sure which one I could fully believe. There was only one way to settle it: I would have to find my own Manila. To do that required visceral contact; I would need to go and see the city for myself. Perhaps this way I would also discover whether my Manila had inherited anything from Granddad’s.

Outsiders on the SEAN: Depictions of Southeast Asia in Western fiction

22 Mar

Southeast Asia has been inspiring Western writers for hundreds of years. As the region has changed socially and politically, so the themes and concerns of its fictions have altered. From John Dryden to Alex Garland, Joan Didion to Joseph Conrad, the canon is too diverse to sum up in the space of an article this length, but we shall try.

In the early modern period, Europeans had a false conception of Southeast Asia as a land of permissiveness, exoticism and extravagance. However, he Portuguese adventurer, Fernao Mendes Pinto, found the people of Malacca, Patani, Sumatra, Aceh and Siam (now Thailand) not to be like this. Instead, he decided they were more tolerant, charitable and respectful than his fellow Westerners whom he castigated for their greed and violence. Even so, after resisting pirates in the South China Sea, he became one himself. These experiences are fictionalised in Peregrinacao, published in 1614 after his death.

John Dryden’s 1699 play, Amboyna, concerns the real-life slaughter of English traders by Dutch soldiers on the Indonesian island of Ambon. Writing at the beginning of the colonial era, Dryden portrayed the indigenes less charitably than Pinto, as one-dimensional, animal-like beings. The play was poorly received.

Heinrich Anselm von Ziegler’s 1689 Baroque adventure, Banise the Asiatic, is set in southern Myanmar and uses travelogues written by Pinto as source material. In a rousing, happy ending, the hero, Banise, successfully defends the Pegu Empire from conquest by the evil tyrant Chaumigrem. In real life quite the opposite happened.

Dryden’s and Ziegler’s oversights are partly explained by the historians Robin W. Winks and James R. Rush’s observation that ‘no piece of South or East Asian fiction was available in a Western language until the eighteenth century’. This somewhat precluded Westerners from fully understanding and writing validly about Oriental culture.

By the late 1800s, novels were addressing Western colonialism’s ‘civilising mission’ rhetoric, albeit in contradictory ways. William Carlton Dawe’s Hong Kong-based potboilers The Mandarin (1899) and The Yellow Man (1900) may have been attacked by contemporary critics for being ‘unpatriotic’, but there’s an ethnocentric streak to his characterisations. The non-white men are amoral and vicious, the women exotic but unattainable. Dawe warns against interracial relationships (‘the love of the white for the yellow’) while salaciously describing it. Jack Curzon, or, Mysterious Manila (1898), by the American author Clavering Gunter, is also full of derring-do but set in The Philippines. Published in the same year that the United States wrested control of the islands from the Spanish, the novel has an undertone of American supremacism to it, not to say an unflattering take on the indigenes. As a contemporary reviewer put it, ‘an important part is also played by a semi-civilised Tagal native, who possesses in common with all his kind, so the writer assures us, a sense of smell equal to that of a bloodhound.’

The colonial adventure genre reaches its apotheosis in Joseph Conrad’s series of novels set in the Malay Archipelago. The first, Almayer’s Folly: A Story of an Eastern River (1895), is about a Dutch trader in Borneo whose marriage to a half-caste girl is as disastrous as his harebrained schemes to make money. Lord Jim (1900) begins with a young British sailor abandoning a ship full of Muslim pilgrims from the Malay states. Jim redeems himself as a raja-style ruler of a fictional island in the South Seas, winning the hearts and minds of the inhabitants by defeating the tribal king Tunku Allang. This may seem like a thinly-disguised celebration of colonialism, but Conrad’s outlook is more complex than that. Both Almayer and Jim are flawed antiheroes with questionable pasts and who symbolise misgivings about the legitimacy of the imperial project.

The twentieth century was perhaps the most eventful in the history of the SEAN. A World War, a Cold War, decolonisation and revolution all appear in Western novels of the era, many of which cast a sympathetic eye over their subject matter. Burmese Days (1934) by George Orwell tells of a British police officer in Myanmar with an affection for the native culture and a distaste for the colonial administration he works for. Just as Orwell learned the language during his time in Myanmar, so Anthony Burgess became fluent in Malay while working as a teacher during the Emergency. He conducted painstaking research into its history and culture for his Malayan Trilogy (1956-9), intending to become ‘the true fictional expert on Malaya’. Graham Greene’s early Vietnam novel The Quiet American (1955) seeks to understand the Vietminh while critiquing American CIA intervention in the country. Greene was appalled when a slushy Hollywood adaptation of the novel tried to graft a pro-American, anti-Communist message onto it. In a comparable vein, Joan Didion’s cleverly experimental Democracy (1984) exposes the profoundly anti-democratic policies of the US in Indochina from the 1950s to the 1970s.

Of all the Western novels about the Pacific World War II, James Clavell’s King Rat (1962) is perhaps the darkest. Based on the author’s incarceration in Singapore’s Changi Prison, the novel shocks with its representation of the squalid conditions, the barbarism of the Japanese guards and the Darwinian rivalry between the POWs themselves.

In recent years, Southeast Asia has come to occupy a different space in the Western psyche, as a tourist destination affording pleasures and experiences unavailable at home. The biggest-selling novel to engage with this is of course The Beach (1996) by Alex Garland. Richard is a seasoned backpacker in search of an authentic, off the beaten track experience in Thailand. His discovery of an idyllic beach commune comes at the price of his own descent into madness and murder. Described as ‘Generation X’s first great novel’, The Beach is ultimately a meditation on how our perception of reality is mediated by so many fictions, from videogames to movies to commercial tourism itself. Also set in Thailand, Michel Houellebecq’s controversial Platform (2001) addresses the behaviour of Western sex tourists in Pattaya and other such resorts.

Southeast Asian society has changed radically over the years. Western fiction has tried to keep up with those changes, sometimes getting its depictions right, sometimes wrong. We can’t predict what the novels of the future will be like, but we can be sure that the region will continue to feed the Western imagination.

First published in Quill, 2011