Wednesday, June 11, 2014

David Pilling

David Pilling is the Asia Editor of the Financial Times.

His new book is Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival.

Earlier this month I asked author about what he was reading. Pilling's reply:
With my own book – Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival – now safely published, I've had the chance to read more both for leisure and for my job as a FT journalist covering Asia.

As usual, and not necessarily by choice, there's been more non-fiction than fiction, though I did get round to reading a book that's long been on my reading list: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. This was quite simply one of the best books I've ever read. Written in the form of a letter from a dying pastor, the novel has the magical quality of a eulogy as the narrator scans his own life for meaning. It is a simultaneously sad and joyous book, one that pulses with an appreciation for the lovely things in life – the water from a fountain, the sky, the friendship of a child and the love of a woman. But there's also a sense of lost opportunity and impending death. Perhaps more than in any piece of writing I've read, each word seemed absolutely right and somehow larger than itself as though it radiated a separate meaning by virtue of its placement in relation to other words. In that sense the novel reads more like poetry than prose. But it is crystal clear in its meaning, like looking at stones through clear blue water. Quite extraordinary.

Another book that I enjoyed immensely, despite its difficult subject matter, was Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers about life in a Mumbai slum. Boo spent years researching the book and has an uncanny ability to get inside the head of her characters - child garbage pickers and slum matrons alike. The book ought to be a reprimand to anyone who believes that if only people work hard they can escape their circumstances. It also demonstrates that those who do escape sometimes do so by trampling on their fellow human beings. I have many Indian friends who regard it as one of the best books written on their country by a foreigner – though equally a lot of Indians I know don't like it because they feel it dwells too intensely on poverty and misery. I for one loved it.

I've just finished another book on India, which I came across during a recent trip to the country ahead of the general elections subsequently won by Narendra Modi. It's called India in Love: Marriage and Sexuality in the 21st Century and it's an examination of social relations that are, according to its author Ira Trivedi, "in a state of molten confusion". What happens when hundreds of millions of people move from conservative villages to enormous and anonymous cities? The book is brave, surprising and even, at times, hilarious. In pursuit of her theme, Trivedi - a young woman - attends a swingers' party, visits prostitutes and poses as a marriage broker's assistant. She also grapples with the dark side of India's sexual revolution: rape, domestic violence and "honour" killings against women who dare to break convention by marrying for love across caste lines. It can be a distressing book, but there's also sense of a country forging ahead and breaking the shackles of the past.

I've also read a couple of books on North Korea, a country I have never had the opportunity to visit. One written by someone who was a kind of poet laureate to Kim Jong-il describes the life of a North Korean propagandist before he escapes to China (and finally South Korea.) It's called Dear Leader and is written by someone with the pen name of Jang Jin-sung. It's a strange book, full of odd revelations about the North Korean leader and the about the dysfunctional North Korean state. The escape part of the book reads more like an adventure story as our hero evades his pursuers as he makes his way through an unknown country, China, towards exile. I also read Paul French's North Korea: State of Paranoia. It's quite dry (for a writer who can write quite brilliantly – see Midnight in Peking), but a good introduction to a country that, by the sounds of it, is at once more mundane and more bizarre than we can imagine. French is very knowledgeable on the subject and spends quite a lot of time writing about half-hearted attempts to reform the economy. He concludes that Chinese-style reform is a practically impossible task since the legitimacy of the regime is so tightly bound up with the (failed) economic model. Sudden collapse, at some uncertain time in the future, seems more likely.

Finally, I'll mention Diane Coyle's GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History. Coyle looks at what we mean by GDP, a measure of economic output that has come to dominate our thinking. She argues that it is an artificial construct and that we should be aware of its limitations when we use it. Since the book was published it has been "revealed" that, by one measure, China is now the biggest economy in the world because goods and services are cheaper than we originally thought. It has also "emerged" that the British economy is 5 per cent larger than we thought - all you have to do is count the economic activity of prostitutes and drug dealers to get that result. In other words, GDP is a slippery and ill-defined measure. But Coyle concludes that, in the end, it may be the best measure we have got.
Learn more about Bending Adversity, and follow David Pilling on Twitter.

--Marshal Zeringue