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.

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Gates and Reeds

OK, there’s not much in common between those two words (the letter E, yes, and four other letters each), though it would be a good poets’ competition to find something that linked them. Poets are good at linking one improbable thing with another – one poet with another, for example.

 

Here’s two poems I’ve written recently and I thought I’d share them together even though they don’t have a lot in common (my conscious mind says).

 

THE GATE

 

Mordor

Pearly gates

The high walls steady.
They are topped with clawing black wire.
Around me the ground is featureless
But the dark gate is wide open.
An empty watchtower stares down dully.
That is all except for a dim light inside.

But here comes one who has gone to the entrance
And stopped at a line on the surface, hearing music
And reports that from there the watchtower changes,
A fountain of colour and shapes, red-jewelled, craft-gilded, live.

I stand looking up at the old brutality
Of the bare, angular tower.

I have seen it before, that gate.
It was on the shore as the salt tide came slithering in
It clanged open the moment I fell asleep
And grunted on runners as I, puzzled, woke again.
I saw it where the stream ran from the rocks.
I have thought I’ve seen it in eyes.

Nothing is what it seems to me
But then, neither am I.
If the gate was of gold and silver, of agate, would I go?
The gate stands open.

 

Illustrating poems does risk stressing one interpretation above another, so please consider the words before the pictures.

 

And then, in a different mood:

 

REEDBED

Reedbed

As I lay sick I had a vision of a reedbed
Waving gently in the wind, naked of birdsong now
Only a few sharp calls.
A great heron lumbered into the air
From the edge of the water I could not see, but cherished.

 

By the way – I was sick for a couple of days, now well recovering. Ear infection threw my sense of balance into chaos – frightening till it was diagnosed and extremely limiting and exhausting for another day and a bit. No big deal now, but I thought I’d better explain “as I lay sick” was not complete invention and should not be a cause for worry.

 

I expect I’ll post again before Christmas, but if not, Happy Christmas!

 

Both one thing and another?

One of the things about poetry that most puzzles literal-minded people is that one set of words can mean two or more things. A description of snow falling can be a description of death or of sleep or, just possibly, a  description of snow falling.

 

faceoff

 

Going to the Snape Poetry Festival earlier this month got me thinking about this a good deal, particularly because of listening to an American poet, Paula Bohince, reading, interpreting and explaining what she liked about the poem “Sandpiper” by another female American poet, Elizabeth Bishop.

 

I found myself interested but uneasy. Here’s the poem:

 

SANDPIPER

 

The roaring alongside he takes for granted,
and that every so often the world is bound to shake.
He runs, he runs to the south, finical, awkward,
in a state of controlled panic, a student of Blake.

The beach hisses like fat. On his left, a sheet
of interrupting water comes and goes
and glazes over his dark and brittle feet.
He runs, he runs straight through it, watching his toes.

– Watching, rather, the spaces of sand between them
where (no detail too small) the Atlantic drains
rapidly backwards and downwards. As he runs,
he stares at the dragging grains.

The world is a mist. And then the world is
minute and vast and clear. The tide
is higher or lower. He couldn’t tell you which.
His beak is focussed; he is preoccupied,

looking for something, something, something.
Poor bird, he is obsessed!
The millions of grains are black, white, tan, and gray
mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst.

 

Western Sandpiper, Cattle Point, Uplands, Near Victoria, British Columbia

 

Now clearly this is a very good poem, with vivid and accurate language, well-organised and thought-provoking, if only to find me American support for spelling FOCUSSED, which my American-dominated spellcheck thinks is wrong. There are lines here which are memorable for the beauty of the image and/or the words like the last two lines or “he stares at the dragging grains”, which is not only vivid but reproduces the sound of a spent wave hissing back over coarse sand.

 

In reading it before Paula Bohince expounded, I suspected there was a half-hidden agenda to it but didn’t know what. I was seriously bothered by the words “a student of Blake”, which interrupted clear and vivid description with what seemed to be a crossword-puzzle-maker’s clue. Paula Bohince especially liked those words, explaining they referred to Blake’s “To see a world in a grain of sand”, which makes plenty of sense; but I still think this is an awkward break and a too clever insert which will distract most readers from the picture that’s been building up.

 

By the way, as a European birdwatcher, I was also slightly bothered that the sandpipers I knew rarely fed on sandy shores, but judging by online photos of American sandpipers, some of their sandpiper species do.

 

Paula Bohince talked about Elizabeth Bishop’s approach to writing poetry and interpreted the poem from start to finish as the poet describing herself writing poetry. That does make sense: in particular, it would be downright silly to describe a bird as being “obsessed” (“Poor bird, he is obsessed!”) in his or her pursuit of a successful feeding strategy without which (s)he would die. It leaves me uneasy, though, because at the end of Paula Bohince’s talk there seemed to be nothing left of the sandpiper. It was a kind of disrespect.

 

Maybe what leaves me uneasy is more in Paula Bohince’s mind than the poem, though I am unhappy about that line “Poor bird, he is obsessed”.

 

Now let me try putting in this light two of my own poems that seem to be attempting something similar – “Watershed” and “Underwater”.

 

WATERSHED

Did you see, there where the cloud broke
Between the high grey ridges an angled cleft
Roughly in line with the uneven river
Which might be a pass? A great bird soared over it
Now nothing shows but cloud and the warning of rain.

The broken impatient river carved the way
We leave the many-angled rocks behind
And the last twisted tree, the last glimpse of a roof;
And the hidden ravens call in the grey mist.
With cunning and husbanded strength
We drag from the circle of sweat to the circle of icy wind
Recovering from a slip is hard
Recovering from the task impossible.

There is never a point where you can say “that’s it”
No throne or light or monument
Only the slope is inconsistent
The shattered smoothing rocks lie in no order
There is no river
These barren pools are the only water

And then the ghost of a trickle
A few thin fingers feeling
Trying to come together, the hiss and sparkle:
We have passed the watershed
We have seen the birth
Of a new river.
Somewhere there is a new land
But it is hidden and the mist rolls in.

There is no warning
No sign, no new music
Just the realisation and the standing still
The dropping, blocking hills
The unknown, long suspected
Alien valley ahead
But half-familiar, like a dream
The hidden end
You feel you ought to remember.

The descent from the murderous heights
To the soft valley is always more dangerous
Than the struggling up:
The sight of meadows and bushes can lead like a mirage
To the eggshell-crushing fall
And the way to the low glittering lake
May be many miles round.

But at least the first task of the explorer
Seems to have been fulfilled
To show what he wanted to explore
Was there at all.
America is found
Mars glows dully but more clear
In the dark waters, something moves after all
Down the strange valley our suspected
Alive waters fall.

 

I don’t want to analyse this poem in the round here or this would be an impossibly long post, but there is an obvious extended metaphor. The poem is a realistic description of a climber or hill-walker ascending a pass to reach the watershed and it actually draws extensively on two real climbs, one in Torridon in the Western Scottish Highlands and the other in the English Lake District (Black Sail Pass). But it’s also about any adventure, any risk-taking, any exploration. There’s plenty of detailed description of rocks, rivulets and so on, but to reinforce the exploration theme I’ve made the climber unaware of what’s beyond the watershed, so (s)he obviously wasn’t carrying a decent map!

 

Nonetheless, the whole thing could be a poetic description of a climb and nothing else until that last verse (from “At least the first task of the explorer”), about which I have reservations though a poetry magazine must have been happy because it was selected for an anthology. In that last verse I talk not of mountains and fells but of America and Mars. The analogy becomes clear. Was that a mistake? At least by this final shift I avoid the weakness of “Poor bird, he is obsessed” – the point at which what the poet wants to say about herself (if Bohince is right) clashes with what can truthfully be said of the bird.

 

UNDERWATER

When you slip under
The long lying line of waves
Strange shapes will come
Silently propelled by waft of flipper
Or sinuous pulsing of a streamlined torso
And some maybe you knew and had forgotten
Dirt shovelled over the well has been removed
Remember the time before you broke the surface
Gasped, fumbled, burrowed
And survived by stratagem?

Now you return to them
Learning to be like a fish
Wander and linger
Here where the pearly nautilus waves unchanging
Here with the ammonite and plesiosaur
And where squat fish that never see the sunlight
Thread through great feathery banks of frond
Of hidden sting and jaw

Do you rise up towards the scattered sunlight
The crushing waves, the inconsistent wind,
The seabird that will fly to a rocky island
Drawing life from the depths, their crowded night?

When you are playing with the waves
Will you remember
Here on the fine-grained shore (maybe imagine)
Beneath the corals and the painted fish
Down with the vents, the eyeless creatures
Some heavy hidden box
That had an answer,
Where you will return?
Will you return?

 

This is more complicated because there are at least three associated half-hidden meanings. The sea can stand for death, time or the unconscious. The poem is much less realistic than “Watershed” and it would be difficult for someone to read it and think it was just about underwater exploration, though there are bits that describe underwater habitats pretty accurately –

And where squat fish that never see the sunlight
Thread through great feathery banks of frond
Of hidden sting and jaw

(which could certainly be a deep-sea, ocean-bed habitat) or

Here on the fine-grained shore (maybe imagine)
Beneath the corals and the painted fish
Down with the vents, the eyeless creatures

(which describes a sandy shore, shallow tropical waters and the ocean bed). But this ocean contains long-extinct creatures side by side with surviving ones, suggesting something either dreamlike or timeless. There is a kind of subtext which says, “Beneath the water surface you change into something else and time as you have known it vanishes. In the deepest places there are dangers but also something valuable. The life of things above the surface depends on life beneath the surface (the fish-eating seabird). Humans travel between the different levels, rather as we evolved to leave the sea and live on land (the last five lines of the first verse).

 

It seems to me to work and one reason is that I didn’t pretend to be talking about real seas. If I’d done that, some things I wanted to say would have disrupted the metaphor.

 

There’s a lot more to think about here…

 

 

 

 

Sprouting Wings

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I’ve sprouted wings, I don’t know why,

I’ve risen up and I can fly.

I’m not too pleased if this is death:

I hadn’t finished that last breath.

If it’s a dream, I’d like to wake

And call the whole experience fake.

I haven’t taken something bad,

But if I’ve died, I wish I had.

I see the world is all at peace –

Bad news for journalists and police.

I stand before a golden throne

And moan and moan and moan and moan.

Ceramic angels gather round

My falling form: I hit the ground.

I’m quite alive, though I have bruises.

My smart-phone tells me what the news is.

 

 

The Tower

What if someone has the opportunity to live his or her dreams? What happens to that person – and to the dreams?

THE TOWER

Looking out over the silent sea

Knowing of another hidden country

She dreamt of unicorns and fiery dragons

(The island in the bay was Avalon)

And when the sailors laughed, cursed them to be blind.

Older, more cautious, richer, more powerful,

She bought the island, poisoned all the rats

And built a tower like one that might have stood

To watch for pirates in the China seas

And spent some few nights there watching whales and slow-burning

Stars that spread eerie magic over the black waves.

But when a dying dragon came to her in a dream

Dragging smeared scales over the revengeful rocks

She left the island and the tower fell slowly into ruin

Peopled by spiders and by mad-voiced seabirds

Haunted by silent, searching unicorns.

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2013

Thomas the Rymer

 

If you would ride into the borderlands alone

Or following a queen or an indistinct light

If you would be separated from the sun

Remember the sound of the waves and, Thomas, ride on.

 

If you would be free, then follow

If you would live, then die.

 

If, Thomas, you wish to feel the rough texture of bread

Rasping your hands, the tang and sweetness of wine,

Wind in the leaves, hair in your face, stroking fingers, soft rain,

Ride on.

Remember, and sing the song.

 

Thomas the Rymer is a figure based on a historical medieval Scottish bard rumoured to have magical powers. One ballad describes how he meets the Queen of Elfland/ Queen of the Fairies/ Queen of Heaven who takes him on a journey out of the known world through darkness where he hears the sea.

 

I wrote this poem during a rush of uncontrolled creativity along with “Borderlands” and (to come) “Estuary Shore”.

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2013

Dark Lady

The term “dark lady” is famous because of a mysterious reference in one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. No one knows for sure who the dark lady was, but she clearly meant a lot to Shakespeare. The terms “dark” and even “black” were used very widely in England in the 16th and 17th centuries (the future Charles II, on the run from Cromwell’s men, was described in a sort of wanted poster as a “tall black man” (he had the hair and skin of his French mother).

 

“Dark” of course, much more than “black”, conveys a sense of mystery and ominous threat or frightening secrets. So why is this poem called “Dark Lady”? Good question.

 

DARK LADY

 

VEIL

 

If I came to you in a dark veil, would you think you knew me?

If I came as a dark in light, would you deny me?

Or as a hint of a tune, employ me?

What do you remember of me among the rustling branches?

What are you reaching to in the owl-rich night

Or where the ice is cracking with your blind advances, calling?

I am the voice you forgot after the dream

You have been following, I was unseen

I will throw off the veil when you are falling

And when we leap among the stars, you shall have sight.

 

FOREST

 

When I became a forest in my dream

The impatient squirrels, the flame-feathered birds,

Slow motion green-glossed struggle of the trees

Rose from the soil that was humanity.

 

When I became a forest in my dream

I felt the touch of winter on the leaves

The pain of cold and hunger in many bones

The dying of a generation

Dragonfly glory preparing to take wing.

 

SAND

 

When I became a forest in my dreams

One day the trees were washed away by wind

The fertile soil rose in screaming clouds

And all around was sand

But to that broken land

Came once again the rebirth of the sea.

 

TEMPLE

 

What image might I put on the temple wall

That people might overlook the fall of nations

And feeling the death of beasts they could not see

Look up to a mountain or a dark lady?

Some delicate shimmering beauty risen from the dark,

Eternal dragonfly that only falls

To rise and be.

 

DARK LADY

 

If I came to you now with shimmering wings

If I came to you with the song of birds

High in the green kaleidoscope of the canopy

Would you then know the figure forming in the dark

And touch what somehow never was there to see?

 

 

Maybe the figure of the Dark Lady stands for something frightening that turns out not to be evil. The image of finding light in dark (not a light in the dark) occurs elsewhere in my poems.

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

Lost Island

Time for another poem. I’ll leave it to you all to decide what it’s about!

LOST ISLAND

I don’t know whether the man at the gate has blundered,

But when I arrived I thought I was going to

An island no-one else remembered

But here the flesh has covered up the sand

And made a picture postcard of the sea.

I don’t know whether the island I remember,

The gap-topped tower you could climb to watch the sea,

Exists; the ferry timetables no longer mention it

But maybe the envelope I left on the floor

Contained an invitation or a feather

From that white bird that soared above the tower.

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

Death and the Magician

Over a period, I wrote several poems which featured a dying or wounded magician, sometimes as the central character, sometimes mentioned in passing. This one was deliberately constructed to resemble a ballad, especially after the first introductory verse.

 

This is the poem that spellbound a group of 60+ people from the University of the Third Age group in Harwich when I read it at a festival event.  It has been published in “Troubador”.

 

DEATH AND THE MAGICIAN

 

One day the magician came to me and said,

The fish are leaping in the yellow stream

The oak has turned into an acorn small

And I saw Death in dream.

 

And I saw Death in dream, he said,

And Death was very kind

He showed me where the roses grow

Though I’m old and blind.

 

I’m old and blind and lame, he said,

The sea is out of sight

The shell is empty on the shelf

Through the woken night.

 

The night is all around, he said,

It closes hour by hour

The voices make me fear, my friend,

Should a proud man cower?

 

But should a proud man cower, my friend,

I think perhaps he should

The wine is turning sour, my friend,

But the bread is good.

 

The bread of death is good, my friend,

The bread of life is fine

And now I’ve understood, my friend,

Will the starlight shine?

 

And will the starlight shine, my friend,

And will the starlight shine?

Now let us touch the vine, my friend,

And we will drink the wine.

 

 

copyright Simon Banks 2012

 

Gloomy. Obscure. Negative. Vague. This sounds good…

I’m carrying on commenting on some poems I’ve already posted. They aren’t necessarily the best in my opinion, as some poems seem to me to be fairly obvious in their meaning and technique, and they could just possibly be good. The first one here, though, seems to me to be one of my best.

UNDERWATER

When you slip under

The long lying line of waves

Strange shapes will come

Silently propelled by waft of flipper

Or sinuous pulsing of a streamlined torso

And some maybe you knew and had forgotten

Dirt shovelled over the well has been removed

Remember the time before you broke the surface

Gasped, fumbled, burrowed

And survived by stratagem?

Now you return to them

Learning to be like a fish

Wander and linger

Here where the pearly nautilus waves unchanging

Here with the ammonite and plesiosaur

And where squat fish that never see the sunlight

Thread through great feathery banks of frond

Of hidden sting and jaw

Do you rise up towards the scattered sunlight

The crushing waves, the inconsistent wind,

The seabird that will fly to a rocky island

Drawing life from the depths, their crowded night?

When you are playing with the waves

Will you remember

Here on the fine-grained shore (maybe imagine)

Beneath the corals and the painted fish

Down with the vents, the eyeless creatures

Some heavy hidden box

That had an answer,

Where you will return?

Will you return?

The obvious meaning of the poem is a description of diving deep in a sea full of life. Some things here fit in with a literal interpretation – for example, at the deep sea bed they may indeed be vents and eyeless creatures, and seabirds do indeed draw sustenance from the teeming life in the sea. But the tone is dreamlike and it may not be a big surprise to encounter long-extinct ammonites and plesiosaurs, creatures a human would have to time travel to meet. This sea is not only full of life and variety – it’s timeless.

The sea can be a metaphor and activating image for death, eternity and the unconscious. This sea has something of all these.

What about lines 6-10? We seem to have come out of the sea. But the image of dirt shovelled over a well being removed is one of rediscovering something deliberately hidden – and the well can convey the past, the unconscious or a dissolution of familiar identity.  Lines 8-10 refer to sea-life first adapting to survive on land – something in our deep past. So here as elsewhere in the poem we’re travelling back in time, as if before the eyes of a dying person flashed not only their life, but their line’s life.

In the third verse we return from the Underworld, knowing that our life outside it is fed by it. We’re like the seabird that lives on cliffs or an island (a projection of land) but could not live without the depths.

In the last verse we’re on the shore. We may return to the depths for something valuable.

This is a poem where the sound of the words matters a lot and where I use alliteration frequently.

THREE

Three sisters dancing hand in hand

They turn and whirl each in her world

At different speeds disturb the leaves

Which dancing from the forest floor

Reject the empire of the wind

Three sisters dancing hands apart

They look at nothing but the leaves

If one begins to glow with fire

If one begins to freeze with ice

They will not know, they will not meet

Three sisters dancing on the heath

Long after forest decayed and died

The one is like a flaming torch

The other cold and deadly dry

The third alive and stepping high.

The number three seems to touch something deep in us. It appears over and over again in myth, in ballad and in religion (the Trinity). Three sisters could be Shakespeare’s “three weird sisters” (“weird” meaning of pre-Christian religion), in other words, witches. My inspiration for this, though, was reading about the early history, as we now understand it, of Earth, Mars and Venus, which may once have been quite similar, but Mars went one way (lost its atmosphere and froze) and Venus the other (was smothered by its atmosphere and became far too hot for life) while Earth became suitable for life.

FOUNDER

I have set my foot in the wet sand

And seen the alien trees, the dangerous berries

Of a new land

It cannot speak before I name it

It is asleep before I claim it

I give a name to this unwary bird

Before I kill it and I tread a track

So as to become a road that traders travel;

Where I have hacked a space inside the thicket

Will be a city, I can hear the talk

Like pebbles clashing in the shifting stream

Not song nor scream

What I have not named, in the lurking forests

Will die until its bones are resurrected

Leaving its shadow over fruitful fields

Rotting the yields.

This is a rather dark adaptation of the Australian Aborigine naming myth. The first humans come to virgin land. They exploit it for their survival and begin a process which will leave to profound changes. They believe by finding and naming things they’re bringing them to life – but some things are not discovered and named, but die as a result of the human arrival. Later people will discover their remains and reconstruct their lives, but the destruction hangs over us.

Enough for now…

copyright Simon Banks 2012