The expat condition is a peculiar one, and the experiences of a person outside his natural habitat and comfort zone generally make for interesting reading.
This genre appeals to both expatriates — interested in how others’ experiences with foreign cultures compare to their own — and those who haven’t left their motherland, as it provides a peek into the unknown. As Jhumpa Lahiri writes in The Namesake: “That’s the thing about books. They let you travel without moving your feet.”
Into this environment steps Hartley Pool, who describes himself as “a deeply ugly British man with low self-esteem”. He moves to Taiwan to be with the woman he loves and to work for the British Council.
Utilising a first-person narrator, also called Hartley Pool, his book, Stranger In Taiwan, straddles the boundaries of biography and fiction. It deals with the culture shock of relocating to a country as foreign as Taiwan — although Pool (both author and character) has lived abroad before, as recounted in <101 Ways To Kill Yourself>.
Not quite a novel, the book can be classified as a memoir or fictionalised autobiography. It is, Pool writes in an e-mail, “probably only around 5 per cent or so fiction, more like a series of connected vignettes”.
“It’s all more or less true, there are just elements of exaggeration here and there. Oh, and I changed some names,” he says.
The author is also a stand-up comedian and derives most of his humour for the book from exaggerated cultural differences. He shares with the reader his experiences of exotic food (which doesn’t always agree with him), domestic and international travels (generally harrowing experiences) and the people he encounters (the strangeness of the Taiwanese — like his introduction to the “sunbrella” — and the strangeness of other British expatriates in a strange country).
We get a sense of how he lives his life, getting to and from work, going to the market, braving the elements (including a cyclone) and living with his Taiwanese wife, Anita.
His comedy is self-deprecating, the kind that is the bread and butter of comedians such as Aziz Ansari and novelists such as David Sedaris (<Me Talk Pretty One Day>), Augusten Burroughs (<Running With Scissors>) and Toby Young (How To Lose Friends And Alienate People).
“I like humour that surprises you into laughter, maybe because it takes something you see every day and makes you think about it in a different way,” Pool tells Weekend Review.
Stranger In Taiwan> is not as much a novel of self-discovery as it is of Hartley discovering this country and its people.
Pool keeps self-pity at bay, and is even conceited at times — never more than in his interaction with his new world, his Heart of Darkness. Stomach turning at times, this adds to the comedy, even as the reader cringes on Hartley’s behalf. When he opens his mouth, more often than not, one can’t but wish he’s use our words. But alas, there wouldn’t be much of a book if he did. Instead, <Stranger In Taiwan> reads like a car crash we are unable to prevent and at the same time unable to look away from.
One gets the sense that Hartley is aware of how he comes across and yet is as powerless to effect change as we are. This tool is effective enough to endear the reader to the mess of a man Hartley is. Almost despite oneself, one wills him to succeed, at least once, and so is kept turning the pages.
But like a stand-up routine that doesn’t quite work, Pool sometimes misses the mark. His punchlines aren’t always funny or discernable as such.
As Pool says: “With a live audience, I won’t take 20 new ideas and try them out on one night, more likely 15 ideas I already know will work and five I’m not sure about. The immediate feedback from the live crowd does my editing for the next show. With a reading audience, you don’t really know what people think until way down the line, which makes it tough.”
And this is one of <Stranger In Taiwan>’s biggest stumbling blocks. While the book isn’t a dud, his material deserves bigger laughs but seldom garners more than just chuckles.
“I think my books appeal to anyone who has travelled abroad and experienced different cultures, and also to those who want to but haven’t yet taken the first step,” Pool says.
A pity, then, that one isn’t left with a clearer idea of what Taiwan or the Taiwanese are like. None of the secondary characters are fully developed beyond perceived idiosyncrasies. Even Anita — a subordinate central character, one with whom the reader sympathises for having to put up with Hartley — isn’t presented as much more than a deeply patient individual. As for her drives, ambitions and feelings towards Hartley, leaving them unexplored adds to the vacuous nature of this character.
Pool attempts what other humour writers such as Stephen Clarke (<A Year In the Merde>, first published under the pen name Paul West) have accomplished. Hartley Pool, the character, could be Paul West if he were funnier and didn’t pull his punches. Sadly, he is. And he does.
Hartley Pool is at present living in the UAE, where he works in Abu Dhabi for the British Council, a global organisation that wants to strengthen ties between the United Kingdom and the rest of the world.
Do you have a writing ritual?
Yes, I wait until my 2-year-old son is asleep and then write as much as I can before he wakes up. On a good day I may get 2,000 words, on a bad day too I may get 2,000 words, but they won’t necessarily be in the right order.
What’s your wife’s take on her portrayal in the novel?
Shhh ... don’t tell her. No, seriously, she’s fine. I think she’s just glad people are now able to recognise what she has to put up with.
After the United States (‘101 Ways To Kill Yourself’) and Taiwan (‘Stranger In Taiwan’), can we expect a novel on the UAE?
Yes, I’ve recently finished <Abu Daddy> — a humorous story of trying to be a good father to my new son as he grows up in the Emirates. I haven’t found a publisher yet, so if anyone out there is interested ...
How do your expat experiences in the UAE compare to that in the other countries you have lived in?
Great! The quality of living is good, and there is a lot of culture in Abu Dhabi to explore. The weather’s a pain, though!