Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Far Eastern Tales

This a special paperback collection of short stories by W. Somerset Maugham that I've had for some time and picked up to read after Monsoon got me interested in these exotic settings.

Maugham is considered a master of the genre and the stories collected here demonstrate why. In simple language and narrative they deal with big themes like love and infidelity, murder and suicide. The invariably feature white British men and women who are living or have lived in colonial territories in Asia, particularly Burma, Singapore and the Malay Peninsula. They portray the corrosive effects of the tropical climate and foreign culture, which often strip bare the flaws of the Europeans who might be better able to hide them at home. They take place largely in the expatriate clubs or residences of the colonial companies, or aboard a ship or other conveyance traveling to, from and around Asia.

Maugham is particularly focused on the relationships between men and women, specifically married couples. His characters often marry for the wrong reasons or discover that their spouse is not the person they thought they were. One bizarre story serving as a counterpoint is a short one about a nervous groom who flees his fiancee in a veritable odyssey of travel to remote corners of Southeast Asia, but who is relentlessly tracked down and married by the persistent woman (we are left to guess how that one turns out). Other cases include a wife conspiring to murder her husband, two suicides, and a woman who adores a false image of her husband but comes to loath him when she discovers he is a coward. A major sub-theme is the failure of some people to live up to their potential because of their voluntary exile in these remote locations.

I don't generally like short stories that much, but I've enjoyed these. Partly it is the exotic location, but mostly it is Maugham's caustic portrayal of human frailty. Those who fare best in his stories achieve only modest victories, but that is a happier fate than the disillusioned and disappointed characters who drive most of the plots. I haven't finished all the stories and will update if the later entries suggest something to add.

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