Book Review: Kazuo Ishiguro, When we were Orphans

Ishinguro

Kazuo Ishiguro is one of Britain’s leading writers, without doubt outstanding. Yet his books are often as frustrating as they’re readable and intriguing. They often seem to inhabit a detailed dream world, but the narrators drift in and out of what seems like dream. What starts apparently naturalistic often becomes very odd.

 

His type of background (born in Japan to Japanese parents who moved to England when he was six; living in England ever since) would not be exceptional in America or Australia, but in the U.K. it’s much more unusual. I suppose there’s a kind of dislocation in most of his books that may be related to his experience growing up.

 

He’s best known for “The Remains of the Day”, which became a very successful film with Anthony Hopkins as the decent, repressed, duty-obsessed butler.

 

“When we were Orphans” features a successful detective, Christopher Banks, looking back at his life. There are flashbacks, but if I straighten those out, events go like this. Young Christopher grows up in 1920s Shanghai. His father works for a British trading company and his mother is passionately involved in the campaign against the opium trade, in which the company was implicated. He has only one friend, a Japanese boy called Akiro.

 

His father disappears. Police investigate with no success. Months later, his mother too disappears. He’s moved to England and the care of an aunt. He begins to build a career and meets a young society woman who seems to chase after famous and successful men. She ignores him, then shows interest in him, but he keeps his distance. It’s clear at this stage that his mind is dominated by his parents’ disappearance and he intends to find out what happened. He also seems more than normally concerned about his friend Akiro and seeks news of him.

 

He adopts an orphan girl, Jennifer, and there is affection between them.

 

Around 1937 he is able to go to Shanghai and investigate his parents’ disappearance. This is where things start becoming very strange. For example, a British official immediately attaches himself to him and keeps on asking questions about how the reception for his rescued parents should be organised. Yet they disappeared fifteen years ago, there’s been no word and surely any such official would think they might well be dead. He meets the woman who’d shown interest in him, now unhappily married and they agree to depart together: he seems to have forgotten his parents!

 

His investigation has made some progress, identifying a Chinese warlord his mother had offended, but on identifying a house that might have been part of the story, he becomes obsessed by the thought that his parents are still being held there! Trouble is, the Japanese have invaded, and although they’ve not touched the International Settlement, the house is in a part of the city being fought over by the Japanese and the Kuomintang. Nonetheless, he sets out to reach it, at the last minute abandoning the woman he’d promised to go with.

 

His behaviour becomes stranger and stranger. A Chinese officer puts himself in danger and diverts men from the battle to help him, yet when this officer says he can’t take him further, he berates and threatens him. He carries on and, by the sort of extreme coincidence found in dreams, stumbles on Akiro, wounded and about to be killed by the Chinese. He saves him, but the search comes to nothing and he ends up injured and in the hands of the Japanese, who treat him well. But when he hears that Akiro is thought to be a deserter, he does nothing to try to save him and despite things the man said, begins to doubt if it was Akiro at all.

 

The story goes on into Christopher Banks’ old age, but I should not tell more. He does find out what happened to his parents and at the end the story returns to naturalism and credible events. The degree of acceptance and resolution common in Ishiguro is found through Christopher’s continuing support for and support from Jennifer. He seems to have made no effort to find out what happened to Akiro. I puzzled over the title, since Akiro was not an orphan, before realising that the “we” must refer to Christopher and Jennifer.

 

The picture of the contradictions and conflicts of foreign society in Shanghai is very well done, as is the picture of childhood and a friendship between two rather isolated boys. But I do find that when the course of events becomes bizarre, I stop caring about the characters. Well, it’s what Ishiguro mostly does.

Advertisements

Book Review: Matt Haig, The Humans

stock-photo-simple-black-and-white-male-and-female-toilet-symbols-107985638

An alien from a vastly more advanced distant civilisation is turned into an exact outward copy of a leading human mathematician at Cambridge University, whom the aliens had neatly and coolly murdered because he was on the point of a mathematical discovery which would have revolutionised human civilisation and led to this violent, unpredictable, retarded species gaining powers far beyond what it could handle. His task is to impersonate the dead Professor while he deletes all records of his discovery, including people he may have told about it, starting with his wife and son.

Things start going wrong immediately: his knowledge of human culture is very incomplete, so he doesn’t understand why wandering naked down a motorway at night may lead to what seems a rather extreme response and a brief acquaintance with other people who claim to be aliens.

He deletes one academic colleague. Then something else goes wrong. He starts becoming fond of his supposed wife and child. The rest of the book works out his dilemma.

At least since Montesquieu wrote about imaginary Persians visiting Europe, perhaps since some Roman writings achieving seeing something of the Romans from the viewpoint of conquered tribes, people have used very different strangers as a way of seeing their own culture anew. Some of the best Science Fiction now does this with aliens. The puzzlement and investigations of Matt Haig’s Vonnadorian do help us see ourselves more clearly. This is particularly so because the Vonnadorian culture – maths based, with little individuality and with death having long been banished, is so different from ours. His hero’s problem is that he starts feeling as human as Vonnadorian – an experience some people who are classed as terrestrial aliens, immigrants or refugees may relate to.

The whole thing is very well done – well-written, well-plotted, oddly credible.

In a postscript Matt Haig confides that the roots of this story are in a period of his own life when he was subject to panic attacks and human society and world seemed about as odd to him as they do to his hero at the start.

This is just the best book I’ve read for a long time.

Book Review: Umberto Eco, The Prague Cemetery

In Britain Umberto Eco is chiefly known for “The Name of the Rose”, that brilliant detective story evoking, and depending on, the learned culture of the high Middle Ages in Western and Central Europe. By the way, if you’ve only seen the film, apart from Sean Connery’s restrained performance it’s a travesty and has got about as much in common with the book as a nursery rhyme with Hamlet (only nursery rhymes are short). I’d got the impression he was a bit of a one-book sensation: “Foucault’s Pendulum” had got the kind of reception common for disappointing follow-ups to a masterpiece, like “Shardik” following “Watership Down”.

 

I was wrong. “The Prague Cemetery” is brilliant and extremely readable.

 

As with “The Name of the Rose”, Eco has more than done his homework. His story reeks of the unstable politics of the middle to late 19th century in Europe. He states that most of the characters are real people.

 

His main character, Captain Simonini, a Northern Italian spending most of his life in Paris, is profoundly unpleasant. At any stage if chance or miscalculation had left him dead, I wouldn’t have been remotely bothered except it would have cut the book short. It’s remarkable that Eco can centre the story on such a uniformly unpleasant character and hold our attention.

 

Simonini is not exactly a spy, but he operates in the general area of spying and official skulduggery, while earning his daily bread forging wills. He has a very long list of hates – women, Jesuits, Freemasons, Germans, Jews – and the only thing he seems to really like is eating and drinking well – but he is never drunk. He has no religion and no secular ideals. He will do anything for money as long as it isn’t too dangerous or too distasteful. He befriends people and then kills them if it suits him.

 

He finds himself used by four different states, by the Catholic Church and by Freemasons, and he exploits and in part deceives them all. He loves inventing credible conspiracies and selling the information as true. He is the origin of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, the notorious forgery which presented the Jews as tightly-organised in pursuit of world domination. This was used to justify pogroms in Russia and then the Holocaust. Simonini would have been proud, if frustrated that he hadn’t made more money from it.

 

There is an clever passage early on where Simonini meets Sigmund Freud in his preaching-the-benefits-of-cocaine period. Freud’s theories (not on cocaine) seem relevant to a mystery that is maintained for most of the book. Simonini has a kind of double, a priest called Dalla Piccola, who seems to know everything he has done, reminds him of the worst things and condemns them.

 

It’s just brilliant. It must sound depressing and in a sense it is, but I enjoyed it. Why?

 

 

 

Life, the Department Store and Everything

I went shopping today in Ipswich. The first priority task was to make a pair of jeans safe.

 

I have a system with jeans. At any one time I have at least  two pairs – an old pair for wearing in the muddy countryside and a new about town pair. When the old pair are too holey to keep, the newer pair is promoted and I christen a brand new pair. As jeans are heavily discounted in periodic sales, I often anticipate, so I have a battered old pair, a decent middle-aged pair and a new unused pair.

 

In the last Christmas sales, at the turn of the year, I bought a new pair in Ipswich. There are two towns with extensive shops within reasonable reach for me, Ipswich and Colchester, both easy enough to reach by a short train journey or by car, but other things take me to Colchester quite often. Ipswich I visit maybe once a year for shopping. I stored the new pair away and as I don’t wear jeans in the summer it was a long time before I needed them, having chucked out an old, ragged pair. I went to put the new pair on. They still had a security device attached. I didn’t realise what it was and spent a while trying to remove it before I noticed small lettering warning that on being forced off it would release a jet of dye. I still had the bag I bought them in but not the receipt.

 

The chain concerned, Blue Inc, have a store in Colchester too. I took my booby-trapped jeans there as I had other business in the town. The staff were sympathetic but said they didn’t use the same security system. I’d have to take them to Ipswich. As I had no other cause to go to Ipswich, likeable town though it is, I waited until there were other things to do there. It took about ten seconds for the Ipswich store to take the device off, apologise and hand me my jeans. Happy, I went on to do my shopping.

 

I was searching for a tea-strainer (hard to get now few people use loose tea) and bathroom scales. In this search I entered a department store (big shop with a wide range of merchandise in sections), Debenham’s. I thought the section “HOME” would be the one. Such stores have signs displayed for classes of items – FOOTWEAR and so on. I saw a sign which said LIVING. Living?? How did that help identify what was there? What might a store sell which could not be put under LIVING? Coffins? I couldn’t see any and there was no corresponding sign BEING DEAD.

 

I remain without functioning bathroom scales, but I found tea-strainers in the pound store described as SMALL SIEVES.

 

Here’s a short poem I wrote about that sign.

 

 

IF A TEA-STRAINER IS A PART OF LIFE

I asked the assistant

For a tea-strainer.

She couldn’t help

And it seemed to pain her.

 

The sign in the store says “LIVING”.

Is that something I can buy?

Is that everything we need

Before we die?

 

What’s not included in that section

That might be in stock?

Coffins? Shrouds?

Asteroid rock?

 

I don’t see any of them

Or a sign that says “DYING”.

Is a tea-strainer part of life,

Death-defying?

 

 

November Town

Image

NOVEMBER, TOWN

All grey, the autumn sky over

Yellowing-green leaves on branches

Stripping slowly. Starlings whirl

And settle, chattering. Dusk waits.

Silence in the street. The light

Seeps out.

Now there’s a nice short poem. OK, kids – now the first question. When do you think this poem was written – what time of year? WELL DONE! Now any idea what part of the world?

OK, just like the poem, or not.

Patient Pathway

PATIENT PATHWAY

The patient pathway now for Mr Edwards

Is on to a trolley down that long corridor

And into the morgue. With improved direction management

Attainment of his aspirational journey goal

Is 98.6%. After that there is a handover

And, being task-oriented, we move on

As, indeed, Mr Edwards does.

It used to be thought, by the way,

That he would be taken to the banks of a river

Or triaged for his final destination,

But we don’t think that way now.

Off he goes.

Image

copyright Simon Banks 2014

Book Review: Martin Pugh, “We Danced all Night”

“We Danced all Night – a Social History of Britain between the Wars” is readable and full of interesting information. We learn about diet, attitudes to crime (varying hugely between one working-class community and another), the changing position of women, sport and class (football had rapidly become a working-class sport, but cricket maintained a gulf between “gentlemen” (well-off amateurs) and “players” (professionals) – about motorists who regarded any government restrictions as unacceptable, the insecurity of rented accommodation, attitudes to Empire and monarchy – you name it.

One of the main messages is that living standards rose throughout the period. The effect of the Great Depression was not as great as we tend to believe, except in specific areas of heavy industry or mining such as the Welsh valleys or Tyneside.

Inevitably there are a few gaps. Martin Pugh mentions that Trade Union membership rose, but has nothing to say about the significance of the unions in the lives of industrial and transport workers, or about industrial disputes other than to note their numbers. Differences between North and South within England are stressed, with some reference to Scotland, but I could not have worked out from this book if the social history of Scotland or even more, Wales was different from that of England in this period in any way, except in the high unemployment in South-east Wales. Odd that, as Pugh is a Welsh surname.

On the political front, one of the main findings is just how conservative the newly-powerful Labour Party was. He has a bit of a thing about George Orwell and snipes at him in several places – not without justice at times, but he says Orwell was disabled as a social commentator by his left-wing views and upper-class origins. Left or right wing views do not disable you as a commentator. They give your comments an angle others should take into account. And Orwell’s origins were middle-class (in the British sense), not upper-class.

 

Well worth reading, though!

An unseasonal poem

Image

Well, the whole New Year mythology pretty much leaves me cold: 1st January 2014 is the day after 31st December 2013 and the next day is 2nd January 2014. By the way, most computers seem to try very hard to impose the American date system, which is bafflingly illogical: a date consisting of day, month, year is a combination of three measurements of which the day is the most specific and the year the most general, so there are two logical ways of presenting it – day, month, year or year, month, day. We Brits do it the first way. Americans set it out as month, day, year – a bit like an address going Bristol Road, 97, Gloucester.

That rant over – on to the next one. Supermarkets have many advantages, but the busy crowds and the noise (including tinny music too loud) make me want to get out of most of them as soon as possible. Over the Christmas period the music is dominated by a few Christmas songs we’ve been hearing dozens of times in a few days and in the rare event the song seemed good to start with, it sounds horribly trite the twelfth time. It’s interrupted by an announcement that starts by wishing shoppers a happy/merry Christmas before immediately suggesting they buy a lot of stuff on special offer. I suspect I’m not the only one to mouth something not very polite – not because I lack a positive attitude towards Jesus Christ, pagan midwinter festivals, wine, whisky and Christmas pudding (this ignorant spellcheck objects to WHISKY, which is the only correct spelling for the Scottish or Welsh stuff, and wants to change it to whiskey, fine if I was talking about the Irish drink) but because I sniff an intention of equating happiness and goodwill with buying their products, specifically the ones they’d hoped to shift days earlier.

So – am I a Scrooge? Judge for yourself (but the final decision is mine: after all, I take full responsibility for myself).

MERRY CHRISTMAS

Merry Christmas, shoppers!

As usual there are brilliant special offers

Why not try…

Why not cry

The tinny music’s loud enough to drown, don’t fear,

An inconvenient noise amid Christmas cheer.

His Dark Refreshments

Image

Here’s another old poem I haven’t posted before. This one is not very serious and it’s based on the experience of half-hearing an indistinct announcement on the public address system at a train station. Most of the announcements are rather indistinct and it’s easy to mishear. The language of these announcements is very stereotyped and stilted: for example, for example, passengers always “alight”, not “get off”. If you’ve got an imagination like mine, even if you guess it correctly, you toy with things you could have misheard it as. That’s what happens in this poem. There are references to Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials”.

Normal
0

false
false
false

EN-GB
X-NONE
X-NONE

st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) }

/* Style Definitions */
table.MsoNormalTable
{mso-style-name:”Table Normal”;
mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;
mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;
mso-style-noshow:yes;
mso-style-priority:99;
mso-style-qformat:yes;
mso-style-parent:””;
mso-padding-alt:0cm 5.4pt 0cm 5.4pt;
mso-para-margin:0cm;
mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;
mso-pagination:widow-orphan;
font-size:11.0pt;
font-family:”Calibri”,”sans-serif”;
mso-ascii-font-family:Calibri;
mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin;
mso-fareast-font-family:”Times New Roman”;
mso-fareast-theme-font:minor-fareast;
mso-hansi-font-family:Calibri;
mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin;
mso-bidi-font-family:”Times New Roman”;
mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi;}

HIS DARK REFRESHMENTS

 

The next train to arrive on platform three

Will be the 9:07 to Liverpool Street

Cold snacks and light refreshments there will be

Available on this train

 

The next train to arrive on platform three

Will be the 9.07 to Liverpool Street

Hot slacks and slight refreshments there will be

Available on this train

 

The next train to arrive on platform three

Will be the seventh to a Liverpool tree

Hot snacks and dark refreshments there will be

Available down the drain

 

Provided by our dedicated staff

Of maddened macho bears, with great aplomb

And custard. In First Class there are installed

Facilities for gods to start a war

 

Or video conference while eating lunch.

The dragon next appearing on platform three

Will carry your liver up a poplar tree

Gold sacks and snide detachment there will be

Available in the rain. 

Now on the mystery lines: the last one was by William Blake and the clue “Innocent? Or experienced?” related to his “Songs of Innocence and Experience”.

Next one:

She dreams a little, and she feels the dark

Encroachment of that old catastrophe,

As a calm darkens among water-lights.

CLUE: Braveheart writing in the woods.

City

Image

As I’m now being cautious about posting new poems because it may rule them out for competitions, I’m starting to go back to much earlier stuff I haven’t previously posted. This was an early long poem sparked off by the New Orleans floods. I think it has flaws, but also some very good lines. I suppose the theme was how easily familiar life, order and organisation could crumble.

CITY

I

At night

A pattern of lights

In ordered ranks and spangled liberty

And some are gliding silently

By day the veil’s off

Cars screech and jerk

A jumble of people bubbles out of doors

And eddies round the litter bins and beggars

In cavernous hall

Hypnotised army listens,

Watches a magician

Whose golden fingers weaving manycoloured

Threads of the painful sounds of boundless joy

Pull them to silence.

A couple find the world again,

Make coffee and even conversation.

Somewhere in one great block behind another

A window breaks and someone dies

And someone sends them off with hate

A man sits at a shimmering screen

On polished wood from a forest’s death

People come to him one by one

Young old proud lonely and holding hands

Then out the door in rows they troop

At even distance with even gait

Their mouths and eyes are all the same.

The good are gathered beneath a dome

To celebrate that they are loved

Outside a boy whistles and stops

A mad girl sings to a shower of rain

Dogs snarl, fight and the loser whines.

II

The day before the storm

Was one of scurrying

To finish jobs or pack the car

Voices spoke calm

But e-mails, like migrating birds,

Fell in their thousands on hard ground

And neighbours wandered round

The garden or the shopping mall.

III

The city walls of law and work

The bounds of land and logic break

And floating past the City Hall

Wash up in the Police HQ

Though government is standing tall

Water that is the base of life

Crushes a paper hat

That was a school, and then a house

Floats gently off like some child’s boat

To meet a bus and dance with it

Down a great busy thoroughfare

With bodies, billboards, toys and boats

With random inquisitive force

It breaks down doors or lets them stand

And pulls the love from lover’s hand

You want a sign?

Here’s one that says:

City Museum.

There is no law, the lines are down

To leaders of religion

A life’s exchanged for a loaf of bread

And starving dogs receive the dead.

IV

Progress is a long rambling walk

In billowing mist from crumbling edge

Of desperate crag to gentler land

And after stumbles, stops for drinks

Arguments and a song or two

The mist clears and we find we stand

On ground that, as we watch it, cracks

From stinking heap of rubbish and lives

A jittery banjo edges out

Beginnings of a newborn tune.

Now the mystery quotes. The last one (come on!) was from Ariel’s Song in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” (“Storm coming? Brandish your weapons!”). Here’s another one that should be easy:

To see a world in a grain of sand

And Heaven in a wild flower

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand

And eternity in an hour.”

CLUE: Innocent? Or Experienced?