Its Sunday here in Hong Kong and with no agenda in front of me I decided to take my novel and seek some suitable places to read it and finish it. So I set off, a little aimlessly, and make for the MTR. Decided to go across to Hong Kong Island and alighted at Central. Took a random exit and meadered along some sidewalks and then some walkways. I was reminded of what dominates Sunday in Central with masses of filapinos crowded together in any space they can find simply to sit, to talk, to eat and to relax. This is their day and the only time they get freedom from their roles as domestic helpers or nannies and they rush in their thousands down to Central to renew friendships and family relations. They are well adapted to their situation. On the walkways they sit on matting brought for the occasion and construct cardboard barriers around themselves to keep any wind at bay. They always seem to have loads of food and their chatter and lack of awareness of passing traffic, tourists and locals alike shows a great capacity simply to be in their own space. I eventually decide to descend from the walkways and seek refuge in Starbucks. To the right of the picture below but out of shot!!).
There, renewed by a caffe latte I begin to renew my acquaintance with Helen Dunmore’s ‘The Betrayal’ one of the long listed Man Booker books which I am working my way through. I had read half of this book on my flight over but the past three weeks have flown by and I have not managed to pick it up since. So I spend a good hour getting back into the novel and getting to grips with the realities of 1950s Russia under Stalin.
I am well into it now but am plagued by that peculiar english sensibility to sitting in a public eating area and not eating or drinking. Resisting the temptation to eat, which would be expensive and unnecessary I decide to delay the gratification of reading the novel until later. I continue my journey.
I meander though more areas of Filipino habitation before moving briefly into a most expensive shopping mall, IFC. This delivers another culture shock and the sheer numbers of clearly wealthy and want-to-be wealthy wander through the shops in hopes of a bargain which would probably cost more than the weekly wage of the average Filipino domestic helper. Definitely not my favorite place though a mecca for good toilets which I make use of. I realise this may be too much information but i need good toilets and note them down whenever I travel for fear of finding myself without recourse to one!!
I descend to the Star Ferry and take a lovely little journey across to Tsim Sha Tsui and back to the apartment. I decide against going into the flat, it is a lovely evening and i settle in the courtyard at the cafe (closed and quiet) and begin reading again. I am engrossed.
The writing is good and conveys well the sense of nervous waiting everyone feels as the constant need to look over your shoulder and not be caught doing so as you fear neighbour, friend and foe alike. It is hard to understand how a society can function in this way so devoid of simple humanity though that shines through in the characters of the novel, Anne and Andrei, who attempt to lead a normal life. I was struck by the bureaucratic manageralism of life so redolent of Blair’s Britain as the early passages of the novel set the scene. Endless meaningless targets to meet and a focus on those rather than on the objects of the care, be they children or patients.
All this to be shattered because a powerful figure, Volkov, finds his son ill with cancer and the leading character, Andrei, a jobbing doctor, gets embroiled in the young son Gorya’s treatment. Though there is a predictability to the plot, it still hits you suddenly just when things seem to have been dealt with and then the true horrors of a Stalinist world is brought down upon Andrei. People have to believe absurd notions to carry on the fiction that there are enemies within Russia bringing it down as not to do so puts you in the frame for denunciation. It is done well by Dunmore and you get a real feel of the cruelty and absurdity of this world.
I am gripped now by the story and find nearly three hours have passed by, the sun has come down, my hunger is strong but the novel is finished. A stong novel and always a marker for me I want to read more Dunmore novels as a consequence.
So a fulfilling day and a truly relaxing one. I am now back in the apartment, cooking rice and vegetables and looking forward to the week ahead.