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Sunday, September 10, 2006

Chapter 1 Teaser

Since we expect to be away from blogger for a while, I thought I would leave you with a teaser from the novel I've been working on in Finland. This is the first chunk of the first chapter:

A Hundred Million Love Songs – All Right Here in the First Chapter

Every conversation I have with Bumi is like watching a great foreign movie by the country’s best Director – who you’ve never heard of because of his exotica. Bumi’s stories are glimpses of another planet, another planet with each new story. He paints a picture of life in a concrete quagmire of endless dead-ends with gangsters and witch doctors warring to out-bribe alien politicians, tells you it’s called Makassar and you say, “Oh, Makassar, yes I think I’ve heard of it – it sounds familiar.” He reveals a city make of smoke that floats where pods carry people to markets in which kings eat fruit that smells like farts and you say, “Ah, Jakarta.” His cinema-photographer eyes project images of burning boats and cross-ocean laser beams aimed at inter-biosphere smugglers and you fear for the life of their cargo, even though he’s sitting before you telling the tale.

Today’s fantastic voyage was to a sandy blue paradise for fishermen and their children renting snorkeling equipment to drive-by tourists in 1973. This is where and when Bumi was born, with his face all small and crinkly, brown and wide-eyed wonder at the implausibility of being plucked from his mother’s womb while she lay bleeding on a dirt floor silently and stubbornly refusing to cry out at the pain of birth.

From the beginning Bumi’s eyes pierced harder than any other, glowering while his father forced him to try football, glowing brightly at the chance to help the man count market money from mainland fish sales. By age two he’d humbled his father by becoming a faster and more accurate bookkeeper, who also spoke superior Indonesian, a skill his father exploited for price negotiations with mainlanders. By age four he bored of accounting and took to engineering, devising a cheap and effective net floatation device out of two-litre pop bottles washed up along the shore.

Bumi’s father, a wiry man with surprising strength and audaciously self-granted authority, went looking for the boy late one evening after Bumi failed to come home for supper. On the tiny island of Pulau, population 100, any lost child not found in five minutes was safely assumed drowned. Bumi’s father, Bam, was not overly concerned – Bumi was no likely drowning victim, the first four-year-old potentially smarter than the sea.

Bam found Bumi on the far sloping side of the island where no one had ever bothered to build or settle – it was simply too far away from the others. In recent years it had become a place where the women gathered to make clothing when they wanted to get away from the tourists.
Bumi was there, cursing a foul black streak the likes of which Bam hadn’t heard in all his years on boats, not from his own father or grandfather, nor any other man he’d known.

“Bumi! What’s wrong?” he shouted half in anger and half in concern (a magical mix of fatherly emotion that keeps us from being a threat to ourselves from a young age).

“I can’t get it tied!” Bumi retorted, pointing in frustration at a small tangle of netting he’d somehow dragged across town (about a kilometer) and 30 empty plastic pop bottles he’d collected. “My fingers’re too small!” Too small for his brain.

“Why do you want to tie them?” asked Bam, his anger fading, understanding the immediate objective but not the broader purpose.

“You tie them at one end to make it float, then you can leave it and go play,” Bumi explained. “Then you come back and you have fish. So then you have more time to play with me, Daddy.”

Two clarifications here: 1. Bam was not an exceptionally hard-working man by the standards of Western civilization at the start of the third millennium of measured time. But he did spend six hours a day at sea – six hours Bumi felt would be better spent playing with him. 2. Floatation nets have existed in various fishing cultures for centuries – Pulau’s ignorance of this methodology is in no way indicative of an ignorant, inept, or unintelligent people. In fact, Pulau’s more labour intensive methods were ingenious for keeping the men out of the women’s hair for six hours a day, and vice versa, and for making physically strong, hardy men for an island left naked in the exposure of rain and merciless sun.

Most human beings survive on tradition their whole lives, and Bam had much in common with most human beings, especially the men on Pulau Island. But his son Bumi was among the rare few whose novel ideas change the way a species like ours lives, and indirectly changes the way all life lives or dies. Whether these changes are for better or for worse depends on which change you mean and from whose perspective you look at the results.

Like most human innovations Bumi’s idea had unforeseen impacts. From Bumi’s own perspective, the lighter workload and greater cash flow that resulted from his innovation (once Bam caught on and got to tying what Bumi’s little fingers couldn’t coordinate) led to a bigger, drunker, meaner version of his father. Bumi’s bruisings eventually became so frequent he even resorted to playing football, his way to stay out of the house.

On the pitch (a white strip of sand on the south side) Bumi displayed the same creativity, not with the football (which he avoided touching as much as he could without being insulted by Didi, Anwar and Rachmana – the ‘A’ players who hoped to get on a Makassar team someday and thus avoid the fishing fate) but with play itself.

Under Bumi’s leadership football became ‘Monsters of the Deep’, a complex game of dodgeball played with the feet, in which two of ten players are monsters but no one else knows who, and rolls of dice (acquired on the mainland Muslim black market) determined who was kicking at whom and which boys would be under suspicion of having eaten their fathers. (If only one of them really was a monster Bumi would have brought that boy home for an early feast of fisherman! And kept him for a pet.)

The boys had been playing this game everyday for a week when word got back to Bam through pesky Nur, who had a crush on Bumi, was tired of being ignored, and in her own strike of innovation decided to tattle on the boys’ sacrilege against football and the sea's great creatures.
Bumi’s mother Win was innovative enough to choose that very moment to seduce Bam (thus saving Bumi) for the first time since the drinking began, which is how Bumi’s little sister Alfi was conceived. She became his only sibling and it was plain to all that Bam had drowned even the best swimmers among his sperm.

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