Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Review: 'The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver' by Chan Koonchung, Nicky Harman

I'm always on the lookout for novels that are non-English in origin, such as this one. Literature is one of the best vehicles for culture and knowledge to spread, so I was happy to see this novel on Netgalley and even more excited to get my request for it accepted.
Life is simple for Champa. He has a good job as a chauffeur in his hometown of Lhasa, and if his Chinese boss Plum is a little domineering, well, he can understand that – she’s a serious art-collector after all. And he does get to drive her huge Toyota.
When he starts to sleep with his boss as well as drive her around, life becomes a whole lot more complicated. But not in a bad way. Suddenly Champa’s sex life is beyond his wildest dreams.
But then Plum brings home a Tara statue - a statue that shines with exquisite feminine beauty – and suddenly life is not simple at all, as Champa finds himself on the long road to Beijing in search of its inspiration. And it’s going to be a rough ride…
The synopsis above is quite deceptive. After reading that I was expecting a fun read, with some drama her and there, but funny. But that is not what you get. There is hardly any comedy to the novel, except that the situation in which Champa finds himself is at times comical. The novel starts out at the beginning of the relationship between Champa and Plum and shows how Champa seems to drift through life. Sex does play a huge part in the novel since Koonchung shows it as the way in which his characters connect to each other. What starts out as a physical attraction trickles into a relationship in which there are still a lot of secrets. Props should be given to Koonchung for how he deals with the sex scenes. It can be argued they are explicit, but because they, and the whole novel, are written from Champa's perspective there is more focus on his response to the sex and his desires regarding its outcomes, rather than a detached third person narrator which describes the details. The breakdown in Champa's sexual life, then, is also a breakdown of emotional contact between the couple, which Champa wants to fix through sex. The development in this is very interesting because it partially reflects the pressure there seems to be on physical attraction working together with the emotional side of love in order to form a healthy relationship. When one of the two seems to break down, how do you solve that breach?

Champa doesn't always come across as likeable in this novel, but then I have a feeling Koonchung didn't write him in order to be likeable. He is real, he is self-absorbed in the way most of us are and is not sure where to go next in his life. As such, he is one of the most realistic characters I have read in a very long time. By telling us the story just through Champa's eyes, the reader sees both how he comes to his conclusions and gets to make up their own mind as to whether those are the right ones or not. His obsession with his sex-life came across as being his way of reaching out towards other people, of validating himself. However, as the novel progresses and Koonchung throws more obstacles and aides into Champa's way, the reader gets to see how Champa adapts to these circumstances and gains a new appreciation for his character. It isn't until halfway through the novel, when Champa meets an unlikely friend, that he seems to find a philosophy with which to approach life and its seeming randomness. However, the fact that the novel is such a personal quest for happiness means that at times the reader is observing rather than empathising. This is perhaps partially due to Koonchung's origins as a screenwriter.

What the synopsis doesn't touch on at all is how Koonchung explores the cultural tension between Tibet and China. Champa is Tibetan and Beijing has been his goal for a very long time. This desire on Champa's side to adapt and fit into this far off place becomes clearer and clearer as he seems to become dissatisfied with his life at home. Although in many ways the beginning of the novel, set in Tibet, is leisurely and calm, the narrative becomes more hectic and jumpy as we move to Beijing. This is not really the place to go into an in-depth discussion on the history between China and Tibet, and there wouldn't be enough space, but Koonchung isn't afraid to address the issues of superiority ideals, racism and self-immolation. Again helped by the narration, these issues are presented in a way that is very personal and this allows for the reader to occasionally not realize what is at the bottom of certain actions until later on. This gives the novel an edge that the marketing team really should've explored more. Nicky Harman does an amazing job translating Koonchung's writing in a way that, I feel, allows for his culture to shine through while also making it accessible to Western readers.

I give this novel...

3 Universes!

I enjoyed reading this novel more than I expected. The synopsis suggests a quick and fun read, whereas the novel has much more to offer than that. As the reader journeys along with Champa, Koonchung manages to create a personal portrayal of a man trying to realize his dreams while maintaining the current standard of life. It is a very human story, one that weaves together history, culture and emotion into one single narrative. Although at times the narrative slips, it is overall a read I would recommend to people who enjoy roadtrip novels.

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