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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Spinning Tropics

Mochizuki Aska

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Title: Spinning Tropics
Author: Mochizuki Aska
Genre: Novel
Written: 2007 (Eng. 2009)
Length: 231 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Spinning Tropics - US
Spinning Tropics - UK
Spinning Tropics - Canada
  • Japanese title: 回転する熱帯
  • Translated by Wayne P. Lammers

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Our Assessment:

B- : plodding tale of contemporary (expatriate) life and a bit of love in Vietnam

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The narrator of Spinning Tropics, Hiromi Azuma (called Hiro), is a Japanese woman who moved to Vietnam and teaches Japanese there. She has some issues with her mother, who calls (and complains) regularly (and whom she never calls back), giving her one reason for staying away from the motherland, but she still seems unsure of what kind of life to lead, and where.
       Spinning Tropics describes life (for a foreigner) in contemporary Vietnam. It's a bustling place (except for those too-hot midday hours), where everyone putters around on a motorcycle and petty crime is rife (cellphones being among the most popular targets). Hiro's account is full of small details and observations about daily life, especially in how it differs from life in Japan; this is modestly interesting from a glimpse-of-(semi-)exotic-life perspective, but does not make for riveting fiction.
       Hiro (and Mochizuki) want (and try way too hard) to show:

     In Vietnamese society, there are many things that you have to be a native to understand. A great deal goes on that someone looking from the outside simply cannot grasp. Rules and norms exist that everybody automatically knows, without anything ever needing to be said. I think they are a great deal like us Japanese in this way. I don't doubt that anybody looking in from the outside has a hard time comprehending us, too. We have often been called inscrutable. We, too, have a great many unspoken understandings that we share. Living as an outsider in such countries is extremely exhausting.
       Such (over-)simplifications and truisms do little for her story -- and, unfortunately, Mochizuki's book suffers from exactly the reverse flaw: in guide-book fashion she tries to explain many of these mysterious ways (and the local food and traffic laws and where foreigners are permitted to live and so on). This also proves exhausting, and rather than being demystifying winds up being rather boring.
       There's some (too much, of course) detail about the teaching-life, too, with the small community of JLTC (Japanese Language Training Center) teachers with their varied backgrounds making up one of the social groups Hiro interacts with. There's not too much time spent on class-time, fortunately, but the students also figure as a group she deals with (and, for example, sees off to the airport when they finally get their assignments to work in Japan).
       The most significant other figure, however, is a local, Yun:
     Without my ever asking, Yun basically took me under her wing as soon as I arrived in this country. She's been looking after me ever since.
       It takes a while (and several very everyday scenes) before Hiro lets the reader in on the fact that her relationship with Yun is more than simply -- as suggested to that point -- friendship. Returning to when she first met Yun -- when she: "was momentarily unsure whether I was looking at a he or she, but then I noticed the slight swells in her shirt and knew she was a woman" (ah, yes, those swell swells ...) -- she acknowledges that she and Yun are, in fact, intimate with one another. Of course: "This was the first time I'd ever felt so strongly attracted to a member of my own sex" -- and the same goes for Yun ..... They're not exactly sure about where this is going, but they are undeniably in love (and like spending the night together).
       The relationship is somewhat upset when Hiro meets Konno, a Japanese businessman ten years her senior (and bearing quite the resemblance to one of her mother's many lovers, a man she also dated for a while ...). They start a relationship of sorts, too, but it also takes on no clear contours -- and when it complicates matters with Yun Hiro isn't sure of what she wants.
       Granted, Mochizuki ties things up nicely -- or rather leaves her protagonist going: "round and round and round and round and round ..." with a clever turn of events -- , but much too much of the book has led the reader round and round and round the life of an expatriate working as a teacher in Vietnam (and, hey, guess what Mochizuki spent 2002-2004 doing ...).
       This is a typical foreigner-abroad tale, with the slightly intriguing twist of Hiro's Japanese perspective (i.e. for English-speaking readers it is doubly foreign). At least there aren't too many exotic anecdotes and typical 'traveler's tales' -- though the plodding everyday descriptions aren't a great alternative, either. Hiro's search for a refuge for herself, a place where she can: "take sanctuary in that safety zone, in order to protect yourself", is relatively well (because not too prominently) handled, but this is a story of someone too unsure of themselves (and by a writer too unsure of herself), and that's reflected in every aspect of the novel.
       Hiro's exchange with Yun about her feelings towards her and Konno is typical:
     "Hmm ... The thing is, how I like you and how I like him are so different."
     "Then which for me ? Love ? Or like ?"
     "Hmm ..."
     "Which ?"
     "That's a real conundrum."
     "Conundrum ?"
     "It means it's a difficult question. But I guess ... well ... I guess the answer is love," I finally conclude. "Since we say 'I love you' to our families, too."
       Hmm .....
       There is a striking absence of passion for much of the novel, with part of what makes Hiro's account less than compelling the way she is able to separate out her feelings when something else comes up; the rare heated moments then also can feel out of place -- not helped when descriptions are as ... enthusiastic as: "my vagina is already licking its lips and drooling in anticipation. It's just itching for the chance to swallow him up again tonight."
       Translator Wayne P. Lammers handles most of the translation-issues well. Yun's imperfect Japanese (the language she usually speaks to Hiro in) and Hiro's teaching the language necessitate using examples that can't always be translated (so also in the continuation of the love-dialogue quoted above), and these are surprisingly well integrated into the (admittedly generally very tepid) flow of the narrative.
       Spinning Tropics does offer some insight into what life -- at least for foreigners -- is like in contemporary Vietnam, but it's a fairly plodding account. Hiro's personal life-story is of some interest, but too much of it is lost in her descriptions of the everyday, making for a less than compelling novel.

       [Note: The name in the proof-copy of the text is 'Yun', but the publicity material has it as 'Dung', suggesting that is how it will appear in the final printed copy. Maybe not the ideal choice .....]

- M.A.Orthofer, 4 October 2009

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Spinning Tropics: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Mochizuki Aska (望月飛鳥) was born in 1973.

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