O Charming Pageantry
Glimpses of contemporary Singapore life rest on an 11th-century Japanese foundation
By Thow Xin Wei
The Pillow Book
The Pillow Book 11th-century Japanese court lady Sei Shonagon is probably the best-known example of Japanese zuihitsu, where loosely connected poetry and prose are presented in a single volume. Its short, disconnected entries lists, observations, character sketches, and descriptions of life at court together with her frank opinions often remind contemporary readers of a blog though it lacks the chronological structure possessed by blogs, which are constantly updated. Ivan Morris, whose translation provides the epigraph to Koh's Pillow Book, notes that this "structural confusion... is generally regarded as its main stylistic weakness", despite the "extraordinary beauty and evocative power" of her writing remaining acknowledged in Japan to this day. And certainly, while the sections themselves may sometimes feel trivial or anecdotal, flitting from one topic to another, they slowly build up into a colourful, evocative picture of upper class Heian-period life, and of the writer herself.
Koh's Pillow Book, a small chapbook in Math Paper Press' Babette's Feast series, is described in the synopsis as a zuihitsu. However, this feels rather inaccurate to me or perhaps even disingenuous, for Koh's work isn't just "miscellaneous jottings" casually arranged, but rather, a skilful and careful appropriation of Shonagon's characteristic subject matter, perspective, and voice (as rendered by Morris). As such, it's perhaps better described as Koh's own Pillow Book, in which he wears her persona as a mask behind which he speaks of his own concerns and milieu. There's a certain aptness to this: one senses a kinship between the literary-minded court Shonagon belonged to, and the contemporary circles of readers, writers and reviewers which Koh is certainly a part of.
Koh also adopts Shonagon's insistence that the work was written "to amuse", and his book achieves this aim. The frank and explicit depictions of sex and sexuality that characterise Koh's earlier works have become re-appropriated into a charming playfulness, evident in the opening piece 'I Miss My Bolster' as well as the homoerotic charge injected into a National Service reminiscence at the end of 'He Gave Me His Name'. Unlike the graphic images that confront readers in his earlier works 'Blowjob' and 'Chapter Six: Anal Sex' from Equal to the Earth, for example these pieces feel more like a sexy little nudge inviting a shared giggle or a knowing smile in response. But Koh does sometimes feel like he's overstepped that fine line between titillation and tactlessness, with the autobiographical nugget at the end of 'First Things' feeling somehow like 'too much information', and the little quip at the end of 'The Cartoons I Loved' coming off as somewhat lame at least to this reviewer for trying too hard to be clever.
It is a pity that it's one of these unsuccessful sexual advances that closes the book. In 'I Mark My Place in Books', Koh draws an analogy between the persona "[marking his] place in books with bits of trash" and "[marking his] place in men with bits of [his] body" within the final section "I Mark My Place in Books". Presumably, Koh intends a parallel between the intimate debris of his life grocery receipts, bus tickets, old postcards inhabiting the books he has encountered and the intimate parts of his body inhabiting the lovers he has embraced. But this potentially productive comparison is marred by the use of the word "trash", which imparts a worthlessness not a randomness to the rather baffling series of body parts (why a "big toe"? why an "elbow"?) the persona leaves within his lovers. On the other hand, the list of lovers feels slightly anonymous despite being named or, paradoxically, because they appear as a roll-call of names suggesting a promiscuity that then undercuts the significance of reading the books. The two halves of the analogy seem to pull the rug out from under each other, leaving the final image of holding open a beautiful boy ready for the bookmark, as it were becoming somewhat more pornographic than poetic, since it rests on no support. Finding that this was followed by five blank pages before the acknowledgements was to use a word oft-repeated in both Pillow Books very hateful.
One of the most distinctive and enjoyable features of Shonagon's Pillow Book is her lists, covering such diverse categories as 'Hateful Things', 'Embarrassing or Surprising Things', and 'Things that Arouse A Fond Memory of the Past'. These usually begin with a roll-call of objects, but often contain longer descriptions or anecdotes. Although Koh admitted in a 2010 interview with Eclectica to disliking list poems in general, his renditions of Shonagon's lists are often successful, crafted with a 'studied carelessness' in which the grouping and juxtaposition of the various items can be colourful and evocative. Take, for example his list of 'Hateful Things':
This rapid-fire litany, thrown together into a cheerful little diatribe, cleverly turns on itself at the end, thereby remaining agreeable even if one does not agree with it. One might question the sincerity of such a move, but perhaps to do that misses the point: what's more important here is achieving a pleasing and clever arrangement of the various items within the theme.
In other lists, however, the arrangement can feel a little too studied. Take, for example:
At somewhat contrived moments like this, the writing loses that charm towards which it constantly aspires: not a trivial matter here, since both Shonagon's original and Koh's work possess no strong sense of 'good' and 'evil', merely 'charming' and 'without charm'. Aesthetic, not moral, judgements are paramount: the "hateful" lover is not one who betrays, but one who is tactless the morning after. But where his work falls short, it does so not for a want of trying this is commendable in itself but rather of trying too hard, too gracelessly.
On the whole, it is really Koh's skill and attention to his craft that makes the writing not just "amusing", but often delightful. The best example of this is "After They Return", which describes in loving and meticulous detail the process of rifle-cleaning after a military exercise. "When the soot comes off, the firing pin is pure silver", Koh writes, and the polished pin later becomes a metaphor for the "speed and exhaustion" that suffuses this event. And so the act of writing itself becomes a polishing of memory, working through the details until the soot of the years falls away: the short, curt sentences revive the speed and tiredness of the weary routine, while careful patterns of alliteration and onomatopoeia flesh out the sounds of the process.
For a work like this, that deals and delights in surface appearances, it is tempting though perhaps not very charming to wonder if there's a deeper intent beneath all this play. On my part, I felt a touch of dissatisfaction getting through half the book feeling little more than 'amused'. Fortunately, two sections in, the book seem to offer insights by which we can re-examine the contents of The Pillow Book as a whole. The first is the section on 'Things Subtle Yet Powerful', which begins and ends with short lists of objects, chosen and arrayed with characteristic precision. However, in between them are longer descriptions which hint at Koh's stylistic aspirations:
This is the only section where Koh directly comments on Shonagon's text, crediting her persona with both manly opinion and womanly subtlety. And, since Koh's earlier works such as Equal to the Earth have no want of "manly" strength and ambition, the current volume does feel like an exercise in deploying the restraint he has "learned", by pouring his characteristic concerns over sexuality and identity into Shonagon's more delicate framework of values, tone, and style.
If this is the purpose of the form, what is its meaning? I suggest that the section on Singapore's Pledge provides a possible way in. It begins by quoting the Pledge in full, then deriding it as an "iambic self determination" that is "quite without charm": a plodding declaration of nationhood, too obvious and not subtle. It might even qualify as "dogma", thereby earning it a place in the list of 'Hateful Things'. Yet its failure to engage us is precisely due to the effort to be plain and unambiguous, to encapsulate and convey nationhood to the citizens in a simple, understandable way.
Koh then proceeds to contrast this with a description of the National Day Parade, of which the recital of the Pledge forms an integral part. Although it begins as if a facetious parody of Shonagon's accounts of court ritual, Koh finally admits that the parade, this "charming pageantry that lends a body to abstract ideals" is what "moves" him to participate in celebrating nationhood alongside the other spectators. They might be tacky, these predictably symbolic displays of colour and mass movement, but the effort to produce them creates a certain charm: and perhaps it is this charm that ultimately prompts us to consider more deeply our sense of belonging to this country, even more so since it "infuriates" us, as Koh says, at other times.
This idea of approaching larger, abstract themes and ideas through small episodes that are both emotionally charged and aesthetically pleasing (or, in the case of the parade, an attempt to be) runs through the book. Thus, the volume is not so much an arbitrary set of observations but, rather, a carefully considered set of vignettes that point towards Koh's larger themes of sexuality, identity, and nationhood. And there's a pleasing parallel between this and how Koh's own more forceful techniques are diffused into Shonagon's more delicate tone. In this work, charm and amusement are not mere decoration, but deliberate strategies that entice us towards engagement with its themes.
Here, one thinks back to the effect of Shonagon's Pillow Book, finding out what she "is really like" through the various things she describes. In her text it's something she seems aware of, but seems to treat as a kind of "regrettable" by-product of her collected observations. This facet of her work seems to be the one that most inspires Koh and informs the approach his Pillow Book takes to well-worn themes often present in Singaporean writing. One might feel, as I did, that there is a certain lack of urgency and power compared to Koh's earlier work particularly Equal to the Earth but then again, they are different books: if Equal to the Earth is a general setting-off for war, The Pillow Book is a courtier reflecting on a hard-won peace.QLRS Vol. 12 No. 1 Jan 2013