Required reading

from Press News, posted 06/18/2013 - 23:40

A while back we reported the first review out of Xavier Romero-Frias’s Folk Tales of the Maldives, a sternly academic assessment that downplayed the book’s literary qualities. Now the Asian Review of Books has come out with a review that recognises – indeed focuses on – the attraction the book will have for people simply wanting to enjoy a good story or who dream of a holiday in the Maldives.

The reviewer starts provocatively, writing:

The Maldives are today best-known as a collection of resorts populated by tourists rather than an indigenous people with a unique culture and long traditions. Spanish author-anthropologist Xavier Romero-Frias collected the 80 folk-tales presented here over a period of 28 years and in so doing reveals that there is considerably more to the Maldives than a spot for wealthy visitors from other lands.

As for the stories:

These generally moral fables are predominantly very short, none ranging to more than a few pages. Originally passed orally from generation to generation with slight adaptations dependent on which island they were told, they acted not so much as entertainment but – by explaining why Maldivian society and environment is and should remain as is – as forms of social control. Several are amply illustrated also by Romero-Frias himself, augmenting their original format. …

This, indeed, is the first collection of Maldivian tales actually written down. It’s just as well, for the rise of a more upfront version of Islam has coincided with a downswing in the popularity and profile of such widespread and repeated traditional folktales, in favour of a stricter theocratic version of “how things are” and “how things should be”. …

The reader is therefore fortunate that the editor has made strenuous efforts to collate this anthology of stories, collected while they were still in living memory.

Some of these tales are gruesome. … Cannibalism is also rife – very often with a woman as the perpetrator!

Sorcerers and spirits quite literally spin and twist throughout also, while – unsurprising given that Maldives are islands – tales about cargo ships, and sea-wrecks and indeed sea wrack, proliferate. These tales also feature a moralistic climax and subsequent denouement. They leave the profound impression that their purpose is to extend societal stability by virtue of the manifest messages implied …

Summing up, the reviewer writes:

Folk Tales of the Maldives is, all in all, a quite delightful collection, not merely because it is well-presented and has prolific and cogent notation throughout, but more obviously because the tales – as we dive in here and there over a period of a few days – are rather charming in what I would nominate as their ingenuous innocence, a reflection of a Maldives which has largely disappeared in an increasingly globalized and cynical world, but which at the same time offer a welcome escape from this very world.

Even if the intended audience for this review are general readers, there is much to offer the academic reader (the reviewer points to an “excellent academic and well-footnoted Introduction”, for instance). And who knows,for those of you in the northern hemisphere contemplating your upcoming summer holiday (and those shivering in the Antipodean winter), the occasional dip into a world of sorcerers and spirits, sharks and sea-wrecks could be just what you need.

And that need not be mere relaxation. As Lars Bo Kaspersen, chairman of the NIAS Board and head of Political Sciance at Copenhagen University, said at a staff meeting yesterday: Enjoy your summer holiday but don’t forget to read; that is where your new ideas and insights will come from.

Happy (summer) reading!


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