When We Were Orphans, by Kazuo Ishiguro

I have long been curious about this author, and I am glad to have finally read him. Ishiguro was brought to England when he was five, and is clearly English now, and is contributing to serious British literature.

This 2000 novel is the story of Christopher Banks, who spends his youth with his parents in Shanghai around 1910, playing with a Japanese boy, Akira, until his parents mysteriously disappear, and then is sent to London to be raised by an aunt. Which suggests a parallel, in its way, to the author’s own change in his upbringing.

The novel begins with Banks in London, now a famous detective and moving about English society. An encounter with an intriguing woman, Sarah Hemmings, revives in him memories of his youth, and even as this portrait of London society becomes fully alive, we gradually realize that the novel is really to be about his attempts to discover what happened to his parents, and the effect on him of that effort. Perhaps it is even why this hero has chosen as his profession that of being a detective. (Or is that merely a convenience for the author?)

The heart of the novel concerns his return to Shanghai in 1937 when it is under siege by the Japanese. This is the most dramatic section of this novel, and its most effective. For Banks is misdirected by the British in his search, encounters again the intriguing Sarah Hemmings, follows up a clue about his parents that exposes him to the block-to-block fighting in Shanghai, believes he meets his boyhood pal Akira, now a Japanese soldier, is captured by the Japanese and returned to the British, and finally learns the fate of his parents.

He learns their fate from his Uncle Philip, who is not a fully fleshed character, but is a necessary one to the story. For Philip was involved in the disappearance of Banks’ mother, and he is now the one who explains the parent’s fate; and, much as the detective in a detective novel, takes many pages at the end to explain the motives and the guilt of the villain. Of course, while Philip confesses, he himself is only a half villain, which gives his character dimension but not sufficient depth. Even when he hands a pistol to Banks.

What Banks learns is not at all what he expected. Nor does the reader. In its way, it is an ironic ending, an intellectually convincing one, but it is not an emotionally convincing one, at least for me. Perhaps because it is an ending over which Banks has no control, and an ending which appears to have no repercussions on his subsequent life that is revealed in the final chapter. In this last chapter, Banks encounters a welcome truth about his family life, and yet it is a truth that should have been clear after the dramatic revelations in 1937. As Banks eases off into the sunset of life on the final pages, in fact, we sense that we understand more of his life than he does. Which, of course, is an ideal objective of many a novelist.

Despite any criticism I offer, I did enjoy this novel. Very much. Particularly the dramatic reality when Banks on his own ventures into the battle-scarred ruins of Shanghai, where danger and gunfire lurk behind every wall. And even when the outcome of this venture behind enemy lines is followed by a final revelation that let me down somewhat, I had to admire the professionalism of the author. And surely he would claim that this is what life is often like. That a life filled with drama is not always one that has a dramatic ending. That, instead, we often accommodate ourselves to the reality that overwhelms us.

One reason I enjoyed this novel so much is that it is a memory novel. Banks is recalling these events of his past, and is able to interpret them, to give them perspective, as he remembers them. His adventures are an attempt by him to resurrect the youthful experiences with his parents that he once so enjoyed. And yet we the reader also understand at times more than he does; we understand how his determination to find his parents is clouding the reality around him, whether it is his potential relationship with Sarah or the risks he faces, both at the battlefront and from the fellow Englishmen who are concealing their involvement in the opium trade of the past.

Another reason for enjoying this novel is that it has the structure of a detective novel. It is about this detective encountering obfuscation as he attempts to solve a mystery of his past, the disappearance of his parents. But it is more than a detective novel, of course. Because Banks’ character both is revealed by and determines the nature of that search. Thus, it is not the solution that matters here, as in a detective novel; it is the search itself.

The orphans of the title suggests the helplessness of Banks in confronting his own history. That he is left on his own, and becomes immersed in a culture he does not quite understand. This appears to be characteristic of other novels by Ishiguro as well. One speculates, in fact, how much his own history has influenced that perspective—of being born a Japanese boy and then fully integrated into the life of an Englishman.

So more novels by Ishiguro are a must. He is my kind of writer. He begins with character, creates an interesting life for that character, presents the character’s life with a perspective that enriches our understanding, describes this character and his life in a straightforward style, and yet conveys a reality that is below the surface, that is often between the lines. Perhaps that last is the tincture of Japanese that colors his British sensibility. (May, 2014)

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The Unfinished Season, by Ward Just

This 2004 work is an unusual novel for the author. It is not about politics, not about war, not about Washington, DC. It is a coming-of-age novel, and a fine one. An excellent one. A literary one, beautifully written.

It is also a paean to Chicago and the Midwestern life.

This is the story of the teenage Wilson Raven. It begins as a family story, a story of his relationship with his distant father, an altruistic lawyer who becomes a victim of commerce when he inherits a stationery printing company. A liberal who considers himself fair to his employees, he becomes disillusioned when his employees don’t think he has been fair, and go on strike. All of which occurs in the 1950s, when Republicans ran Washington and his father’s fellow businessmen fear the big Red scare.

But this is not to be a political story, even one far from Washington. It is to be the story of 19-year-old Wils, who fills the summer before entering college with a day job as a newspaper copy boy and his nights cavorting at debutante parties given by Chicago’s high society. The heart of this novel is to be a love story, a love between Wils and Aurora, a girl he meets at one of the dances, and a girl with whom he immediately clicks in a brilliantly created (by Just) conversation.

Wils meets Aurora about one-third into the book, and just as there has been no story line in his relationship with his aloof father, or his father’s tenuous relationship with his mother, and we have been completely enthralled, so, too, even as nothing dramatic happens when he starts courting Aurora, we continue to be enthralled. This is Just in complete control of his material, as well as the technique of the novel.

Indeed, in the relationship between his father and mother, he is foreshadowing Wils’ coming relationship with Aurora. For both the women seek the adventure that back East offers, while the men see themselves as Midwesterners. Dreaming Midwesterners at that.

In the absence of drama, what makes this novel work for me is Wils’ observations about the people he meets and the Chicago life he encounters, from the debutante dances to the city room to the jazz clubs that he frequents.

Finally, the drama arises when Wils meets Aurora’s father, Jack, a famous psychiatrist, an aloof man with a mysterious past who watches with pride over his daughter. He likes Wils, and there is no immediate dramatic conflict, but an adversarial relationship between his daughter and his mistress Consuela suggests the inevitable confrontation that will change Wil’s life.

But before that confrontation there is a wonderful section two-thirds into the novel, when, without Aurora, Wila spends a day alone in Chicago. Again, nothing happens, but it is beautiful writing. Its purpose seems to be to reflect the title of this novel that has an ending but no conclusion, which is why it is Wil’s “unfinished season.”

It is Wils’ last day at the newspaper, and he has a wonderful conversation with his boss, in which his boss says he will never make a good reporter because he loves the mystery, the romance of an event, especially when it is inconclusive. He cites Wils’ fascination with a women who was found frozen, who was revived, and who then disappeared. Whereas a good reporter, he says, digs until he finds the facts and comes up with a conclusive ending. In fact, as we finish this novel we realize the inconclusiveness to Wils’ love story is again being foreshadowed here.

Then Wils kills an afternoon at the Chicago Art Institute, where he is entranced by the Impressionists and how their style suggests the lives behind the characters being portrayed. Whereas, the works of Edward Hopper are hard-edged, with anonymous figures filled with melancholy, and no suggestion of what waits them beyond the picture frame. It is, again, a metaphor for the “unfinished season” Wils is about to endure.

In the final scene of that afternoon, there is a finely drawn wake, and then the book’s only dramatic flare-up. Which changes Wils’ life and leads to a deeper inconclusiveness. And yet we as readers do not feel cheated. There is a completeness here, not least because Wils accepts what has happened, is not resentful, realizes it is part of entering manhood. And also because the author brings together two adversaries, has them holding hands, has them also accepting the ending of their relationship.

Just concludes his novel with a scene set 40 years later, a technique many authors use to reveal the final fate of their characters. I often dislike those chapters; they become a cop-out. But not here. In part because this final chapter is beautifully written, and in part because it brings contentment to two lives but no clear answers about what caused Wils’ life to change.

Ron Charles’ review does not accept the narrative. “The moment you stop reading,” he writes, “the spell breaks and you’re left with the aftertaste of pretentious thought.” He cites “slippery comment from this maddening narrator, who oozes earnest sincerity and weighty import.” He cites a “most treacherous of friends (and narrators), the humble, self-effacing observer who wants only to witness and understand the challenges other people face.”

Which is precisely why I loved this novel. I identify with this sensitive boy who does not understand himself or the world he inhabits. Whereas Charles does not. Which suggests that what the reader brings to the novel, his life experience, can determine the novel’s effect on him. What I do find, as consolation, is Charles’ summing up: “If you fall in love with that voice, as the author did, The Unfinished Season is a moving and beautiful reminiscence of a time of great change.” And fall in love I did.

To sum up, this is a wonderful change of pace for Ward Just. He was clearly writing out of his love for the Midwest, and yet is aware that that love often cannot be reconciled with the dreams, the ambitions, of the loved one. He is also writing about the romance of youth, when all seems possible, when endings are not needed. And yet the voice of one writing 40 years later frames this story with reality, with the realization that this was the story of the youth he no longer is. (May, 2014)

The Prague Cemetery, by Umberto Eco

The Prague Cemetery, by Umberto Eco

This 2010 novel is a difficult book to review. Captain Simone Simonini is writing a memoir about the prejudiced grandfather of his youth, and then his early adventures involving Gariboldi’s effort to unite Italy. But it is a beginning that appears mainly to establish Simonini as a ruthless man and a brilliant forger. Because the work quickly introduces a spiritual, philosophical intrigue among the Vatican, the Freemasons, and the Jews. Which converts this novel about nationalism and politics into a novel of demonization and subversion, a novel of the infighting among believers and nonbelievers, clergy and heretics, among the powerful and the manipulators and their victims. And the purpose of this intrigue? To defame the Jews.

We realize early on that Simonini is a forger and a murderer. He is also the grandson of an (historic) figure named Simonini who has imbued in his grandson a hatred of the Jews. What is intriguing at this point is that the grandson has an interesting relationship with Abbe Dalla Piccola, with whom he exchanges messages, and who remembers recent events that Simonini cannot; and vice versa, Simonini remembers things the abbot cannot. Their psychological partnership is further enhanced when Simonini recalls a long conversation he once had with a man he calls Froide.

While this opening section is being told by Simonini in his memoir; there are occasional responses to his writing by the abbot. But soon a narrator appears, as if Eco has realized he cannot advance his story in a manageable length unless he uses this narrator to condense and interpret the complicated events which we are about to read. Moreover, Simonini’s youthful adventures in Italy with Garibaldi, quite confusing to the reader who does not know that history, will soon be matched by a more complicated intrigue.

Exiled to Paris for this criminal behavior in Italy, Simonini enters the primary events of the novel. This is the intrigue among the Church (primarily the Jesuits), the Freemasons, and the Jews to discredit one another. But particularly to discredit the Jews. And because he is such a skilled forger, Simonini decides to seek a client who will pay him to forge a document that purports to expose the Jews’ plot to dominate the world by subverting its morals, its politics, and its finances. This deception is to be in the form of a transcript of a meeting by 12 Jews in the cemetery at Prague, where they plot their strategy. Simonini knows he is the perfect man to forge this document, which he begins to call his protocols, because of his grandfather’s documents and his own awareness of how novelists such as Eugene Sue and the elder Dumas have filled their work with anti-Jewish diatribes.

Gradually, the reader realizes he is reading a possible scenario of how The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was created. Which takes the edge off the continual slurs against the Jews that assassinate their character, expose their evil motives, and condemn them as a people— invective that fill this book. In fact, the protocols blame everything that is wrong with Western society on the Jews. What Eco achieves here is a daring strategy to fill this book with zealous vituperation, and yet cleverly show that these insults do not reflect the author or this book, but originate with these characters. And this is enforced when Eco reveals at the end that all the characters, except Simonini himself, are actual historic figures.

I must confess that I was lost in the complexity of this religious intrigue. Mainly because it was difficult to identify these multiple characters as they reappeared on the scene. What was their relationship to Simonini, I kept asking myself. And because they were not fully fleshed out, instead representing a specific argument, it was difficult to recall their multiple motives and the allegiances, and which aspect of the protocols plotting they stood for.

Perhaps this is because Eco’s remarkable research led him into recreating too much of this elaborate intrigue—so much that the characters exist in their relationship to the protocols plot more than they do in their relationship to one another. And Eco himself obviously recognized the difficulty in following the novel’s story, for at the end of this book he summarizes the events of each chapter. He writes: ”for the benefit of the overly meticulous reader, or one who is not so quick on the uptake, here is a table that sets out the relationship” [between the novel’s events and the telling of those events].

Eco has clearly chosen a sensitive topic here. In fact, he has taken on the most sensitive subject in the world’s cultural history, the defamation of the Jews—and shown the ruthlessness and the intrigue behind this merciless campaign. Indeed, he has illustrated how men are willing both to deceive themselves and to excuse their defense of this historic injustice.

I only wish Eco could have presented these events more clearly. That he had not chosen the elaborate combination of a memoir and a narrative—although I was grateful that he used contrasting type faces to delineate those different perspectives. And perhaps he also stuck too close to history, which prompted the introduction of such a broad range of characters. Yes, the protocols were created as a result of a complicated and interrelated series of factors. But I am not sure the verisimilitude achieved was sufficient to justify this approach to a work of literature.

To sum up, this is a remarkable story told in a remarkable way. But Eco was motivated more by history than by literature. The creation of the protocols was too complicated a story, I believe, to allow the unity required for literary art. And as a result of this complexity, the multiple characterizations suffered. What works is that this is a credible story, at the same time that it is a confusing one. And it has a strong central character, Simonini, even if a despicable one.

Rereading this novel would surely bring a closer understanding of the story, and how the various characters interrelated. But the original reading experience has not been enjoyable enough to entice me to do this. (May, 2014)