Writing about Southeast Asia, the Far East for the British, presents the writer with a particular challenge. Poets who have ventured into the area write about judging the unfamiliar, immersion in the exotic or visiting and leaving — riding through on a motorbike, as in S K Kelen’s Shimmering (Five Island Press, 2001), as if not touching the textures experienced, the effect being of looking in on something not quite understood. That the ‘something’ is human culture provides tension in terms of comprehending interactions and celebrations, preferences and the formality of behaviour. Under these layers, which may be construed as the exotic facade that separates cultures from each other, there are the simple facts of being human and being part of human society.
In The Hoplite Journals, Martin Anderson meditates on being a teacher of English language in a culture that straddles East and West in so far as the Philippines was colonised by the Spanish and in the nineteenth century by the North Americans, invaded by the Japanese and, post-World War II, has endured USA military bases. Chinese traders and sojourners, and Japanese fishermen from Kyushu and Nansei Islands and Pacific Islanders have left their mark, too, in the basically Malay face and on the social, cultural and religious practices, some Muslim and some pre-Muslim. The history of the Philippines is old and heterogenous. For the writer, the challenge is to avoid the exotic marginalisation of a society, which is responding to the demands of the contemporary world when one of those demands is having to know how to use English.
The Hoplite Journals is about language, the hoplite Martin Anderson a mercenary of the dominant culture, a person paid to deliver the means by which one may succeed on the net, at the stock exchange, at international forums and in the flight cabin. The Hoplite Journals consist of 29 sections. The sections contain several prose poems addressing a series of propositions, reflections and meditations, as expected of a travel journal. They are not written extravagantly, although visual details establish the initial gestures of the journal, and are later used to rupture complacency. For example, in section I, page 9, there is the extended painterly description, beginning with ‘The tattered Royal Doulton blue of a scalloped awning draping dry red rivulets vertically down itself from the rusted iron frame on which it was stretched.’ leading to the rhetorical question ‘And what is it, anyway, that we are after?’
Malls of conciliatory noise. These voices proliferate round us. The difficult silences banished. In the glass enclosed air and light that is filtered into these spaces, the inescapable discernment of a collusion with eternity. At which boutique shall we, today, worship; at which brasserie or doorway filled with the latest products of high technology? The beverages, and choices of desires, are endless. Cognito eorum, quae sunt ea, quae sunt, est. We have become what we contemplate. And in these last stages of that long journey back to our God, the promiscuity of our dawdling at these shrines unadmonished, what are we chanting from but the extracts from our endless supply of users’ manuals, and the small print of our warranties, our eyes slurred by the screens of flickering pornographies, our mouths full of a debased coinage, fingering our mail order catalogues for a holiday to an endangered rain forest, for an exotic bride, for the purchase of a piece of disappearing reef.
The Hoplite Journals takes the reader into the writer’s mediation with his surroundings and beyond, his comments as in the passage above standard nostalgia for the apparently less complex and materialistic past. The comic moments following this particular passage play with pronouns, exposing the sensibility and despair of someone sitting out a fever. Interestingly, the one pronoun Anderson doesn’t play with is the first person singular. All other pronouns, especially the first person plural, are often used. The effect when he uses the second person singular ‘one’, a word usage that would feel strange to an Australian writer, is to infuse the piece with sardonic humour. Here is the British prig of the BBC costumed dramas of the colonial past emerging through the fever — ‘Over the astonished and hypnotised audience of one’s sense, he closes one’s eyes, and auscultates one’s being; until one is merely a fine sediment stirred by his hand.’ (p78)
Some of the paragraphs are reminiscent of the early twentieth century European writers who ‘discovered’ the slow-paced equatorial life of Southeast Asia. Joseph Conrad is the first to spring to mind, but there is also Henri Fauconnier (Soul of Malaya, 1931) and perhaps many others who wrote in Spanish. The sentiment, too, is that of the European man who, whilst indulging his mystical nature that is well-informed in Buddhism, never loses a strict sense of propriety when he addresses the imbrication of contemporary politics with economics.
Martin Anderson uses the English language, refreshing words with their actual meaning. I enjoyed reading language, language that was being written by someone who valued the meaning of words without striking out with the strained misappropriation of visual words and phrases to show off an angle whilst concealing poor vocabulary. He is not a writer who ‘unpacks’ a sentence, reserving the word ‘unpack’ for taking clothes out of a suitcase or bananas out of a crate.
Whatever the reader may think of his meditative style or his understanding of where the Teacher of English Language finds his measure, the forever alien introducing the language of advantage, The Hoplite Journals depends on Martin Anderson’s love of English, the language, and his ability to write prose rich in meaning. I enjoyed the need to concentrate as I once enjoyed that requirement when I read Samuel Beckett or Peter Handke. The many recent novels I have read, including novels that are considered pre-eminent, are averaged by editors responding to the demands of the marketing department for instant understanding so that I am compelled to skip from page to page, not halted by anything unexpected in terms of beauty, originality or economy. When rereading passages of The Hoplite Journals, I did so for the sheer pleasure of reading. For that I am most grateful.
Carolyn van Langenberg
Carolyn van Langenberg’s latest novel, blue moon, is the final novel in the ‘fish lips’ trilogy. Set in the hinterland of Byron Bay in Australia and Penang in Malaysia, the ‘fish lips’ trilogy — fish lips, the teetotaller’s wake and blue moon — embraces Australia’s uneasy negotiation with the word colonialism. With the assistance of a Literature Board (Australia Council) grant awarded in 2001, Carolyn is researching the biography of the writer the late G. M. Glaskin. She is an Honorary Associate at the University of Sydney in the School of English, Art History, Film and Media. Carolyn lives in the Blue Mountains in New South Wales.