Turning back the pages of time
I've been doing a spot of time-travelling this week.
I haven't accomplished this marvel by stepping into some Tardis-like sci-fi time machine, and I haven't stepped through a secret door in the back of my wardrobe. I've simply been reading.
I began my time travel by rereading The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles, a novel which I first read in the early 1970s.
I followed that by reading a cache of letters returned to me by the friend to whom I had addressed them when I lived in Brunei in the early 1990s with my young daughter, and my then partner.
The French Lieutenant's Woman, set in Victorian England, is the story of a fraught love affair between a "fallen" woman and a wealthy gentleman, who is also an atheist and a keen amateur palaeontologist.
Satisfying simply as an historical novel, the book intrigues because in post-modern fashion, Fowles breaks the novelistic spell by interrupting the narrative with comments on the mores and sensibilities of the Victorian era. He explains the Victorian understanding of science, religion, economics and sexual politics, with the hindsight of a man writing almost exactly a hundred years later.
Writing in 1969, Fowles knows what his 19th century characters did not: of Darwin, Marx and Freud, two world wars, the fall of the British Empire and scientific advances that changed the world and how human beings would think in the 20th century.
In rereading The French Lieutenant's Woman in 2017, 48 years after its publication, I felt as superior to the Fowles of the 1960s, as Fowles felt about the Victorians of the 1860s. When he wrote the book, Fowles didn't know that the future contained the internet and the smart phone, genetic engineering, global warming, the fall of communism, the rise of religious fundamentalism and terrorism, and how this would change the world, and how human beings would think in the 21st century.
When I began to read through the letters I had written from Brunei in 1994, they evoked a similar feeling of travelling backwards and forwards through time, though on a smaller, more personal timescale.
The 41-year-old self who wrote the letters didn't know what her 64-year-old self would know.
My present self is amused at how, in the grip of culture shock, I describe myself as "an insatiable monster of discontent".
I'm in a fury that innocuous books, confiscated by Customs, are returned with pages torn out of them. I feel a misfit in the expat community. It takes months for my daughter to become happily settled at the International School. It's too hot. Housekeeping is a trial. The geckos which skitter up and down the walls also litter the house with their droppings. There's too much washing to do in a climate which "makes sweating an art form" and "I have no energy for creative activity."
The monkeys which appear in the jungle at the back of the house are amusing, but we're nervous about the pack of stray dogs which roam outside the front gate.
TV features hours of Koran reading filmed with a single fixed camera and badly-made movies dubbed into Malay. In government offices the air conditioning is turned up so high that the clerks wear padded jackets.
If it's not too hot, it's too wet. My daughter might stand out in the yard during a monsoon deluge "like a little pagan with her face and hands held up to the sky" but the booming thunder, and the lightning which forks across the sky at night frightens her. And me.
The ceiling in the lounge begins to leak so "the globe of the glass lampshade has filled with water and looks like a dangling goldfish bowl". Nothing is as I want it to be. On New Year's Eve we find only one restaurant open. "It was a Chinese restaurant but the cooks had gone home. The waiters scoured the kitchen and served us with 4 dim-sums and beer served in a teapot because alcohol is banned."
However, the letters also show that that I am inching towards my desire to become a writer.
"I am sitting at my computer in what should be a servant's room. There's a fan so I don't drip sweat onto the keyboard."
I attend a writing workshop run by New Zealand writer Joy Cowley at the University of Brunei. I am anxious about my reliance on books for pleasure and refuge and "I'm afraid of what will happen if they desert me." I complain that "If I'm not writing I feel less than a whole person. When I am doing it, I feel a kind of despair."
My 64-year-old self, reading this litany of complaints knows how much of that impatient, scattered energy I still have, and how much thought I still waste in argument with the universe.
But she also knows that when that past self returns to New Zealand, she will compress all that fevered, water-logged introspection into a short story. A story which will feature palm trees, stray dogs, sweat, the smell of spices and rot, beer in a teapot and an unhappy narrator. And that story will become one of the first pieces of writing she has published, and is paid for.
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