Volcano, by Shusaku Endo

This 1959 work is a symbolic and elusive short novel from Japan. It is also both provocative and down-to-earth, as it follows the daily routines of its characters. At its center is a volcano called Akadake, and the story is built around four men who are drawn to it. Indeed, this volcano holds the key to understanding the novel. It is a symbol of both death and the evil in mankind.

Endo creates a fictional Professor Koriyama, who establishes the symbolism: “What a mount of heartache it is. A volcano resembles human life. In youth it gives reign to the passions and burns with fire. It spurts out lava. But when it grows old, it assumes the burden of past evil deeds, and it turns as quiet as the grave.”

The four men drawn to this volcano are Jinpei Suda, section head at the Central Weather Bureau, from which he retires on the opening pages; Father Ginzo Sato, a local Catholic pastor who wishes to establish a retreat house on the volcano; City Councilman Aiba, who wishes to enhance the city, and his own wealth, by building a hotel near the retreat house; and Father Durand, an elderly, cynical, apostate French priest who can no longer relate to either his faith or to other human beings.

As the novel progresses, these four men live separate lives that are joined only by the volcano that hovers over their city across the bay. And the question the novel raises is whether or not this apparently dormant volcano will once again explode in fury, as in the past. Or will it remain dormant, like old men, as the distinguished professor says. For if it explodes, it will ruin, of course, the plans of both Father Sato and Councilman Aiba.

The cynical Father Durand believes it will explode, and the retired Jinpei Suda, who loves the volcano and has studied it for years, sees signs of that possibility even as he denies it. And, of course, the issue of whether or not it will explode leads the reader to anticipate that one or more of these older men might also explode.

Nothing much happens in this novel. There is office politics, a retirement party, a family squabble, trips to the volcano, holiday celebrations, dinner conversations, hospital visits, dreams, hallucinations, etc. What matters are the relationships that stem from the characters’ differing views—about the volcano, about civic growth, about one’s worth. About life below the surface of these pages.

One wonders how much of Endo’s own life influenced this and other novels of his. As a Catholic in Japan, part of a tiny minority, he surely had that sense of being an outcast that characterizes some of his characters here. Such as the retired Suda and the apostate Durand, the two key people in this work. Moreover, Endo himself fell ill after World War II when studying in France, and reportedly felt that adhering to his faith in a foreign land, plus anti-Japanese prejudice there, precipitated that illness. As a result, he endured a crisis of faith. And that faith survived. But what if…and we have Father Durand.

Endo is a major Catholic novelist who has been compared to Graham Greene. And so it is perhaps natural that he explores in his work the question of old age and death, as well as the question of evil. Toward the end, Suda recalls Professor Koriyama’s message, saying: “When we have taken on the years, we look back on our past, and even though we come to know the mistakes we made, there is no time left to live again and repair the damage. The tragedy of old age, after all, lies precisely in this, does it not?”

Thus, Suda introduces an awareness of one’s past and the wrongs one has committed, and speculates how one can make amends at the end. And, seeing his life paralleled with that of a volcano that seems to have died down, he decides to build the retreat house. While Councilman Aiba, who has adopted the same belief about the volcano, makes his plans for the hotel.

But we the reader are not that sure about the dormant future of the volcano. Not if there is meaning in the inner turmoil that Suda and Dormand endure. And perhaps also because this Catholic writer, a believer in original sin, accepts that evil does exist in the world, and often explodes within us.

There is also an emptiness to these characters’ lives. And a desperation within. No wonder they feel themselves to be outcasts. For they live alone, within themselves. Their main relationships are administrative and political. They are not friends. They share an interest in the volcano, yes, in its past history or its future role, but that is all they share. As translator Richard Schuchert writes, “Volcano depicts the sad state of human life when it is devoid of deep love. Suda, Ichiro [his son], and Aiba, and the other non-Christians show no trace of compassion. The Christian characters, like Durand and Father Sato go through the motions of Christian charity but without the spirit.”

As a result, there is a certain dryness to a novel when its characters are not infused with love. And have no personal relationship to others. Their common relationship here is with the volcano. And so we experience this novel on the more abstract level of humanity, rather than on the level of human interaction. Yes, there is significant meaning in its theme, but we encounter this early novel on an intellectual level rather than on an emotional level, that of identifying with its characters. We come away with the sense of the often elusive, often frustrating, meaning of life. As well as the meaning of death. And of how much there is a connection between the two.

This is the last of the Endo novels there are for me to read. Perhaps because it is an early novel there is more to the symbolism, the meaning, behind this novel, than there is to the richness of movement and character that I prefer. Its perfection, that is, is more in its message of life and death and evil than it is in the actual life story of its main characters. The prime memory one has of this novel is not of these people but of an inanimate (or is it?) mountain of earth. (January, 2017)

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Identical, by Scott Turow

This starts out as a wonderful novel from 2013. It begins with the family tensions that arose in 1982, when Paul Gianis tried to save his twin, Cass Gianis, from marrying the provocative and beautiful Dita Kronon. Then it jumps to 2008 and takes on a political flavor, as Paul decides to run for mayor.

So I settled in to read a wonderful novel, even literature, as author Turow introduces these two Greek families. And it soon becomes apparent that what occurred in 1982 between the Gianis and the Kronons has major repercussions in 2008. Of the two families, there is the wealthy entrepreneur Zeus (Zisis) Kronon and his son Hal (Herakles) and daughter Dita (Aphrodite). And from the Gianis family, there are the twins, Paul, a lawyer and leader of the state senate, and Cass, and their mother, Lidia. Turow presents these families in considerable richness and depth, with their present reflecting the past and their past influencing the future.

To help convey the link between the past events and current relationships, Turow has made two decisions. First, he has scattered through his novel, step by step, details of the violent scene in 1982 in which Dita Kronon was killed. Each step in the series appears in an italic sans-serif type, and each anticipates the knowledge that two detectives, retired cop Tim Brodie and ex-FBI agent Evon Miller, will encounter when learning in 2008 about what happened in 1982.

Turow’s second decision was to explore the truth of Dita’s death through those two detectives. Evon now heads security for the Kronon family business, which son Hal now runs; and Hal has directed her to prove that Paul Gianis was involved in the killing of his sister. For that killing, Cass Gianis pled guilty, has served his sentence, and is now eligible to be released from jail. By his strategy, it is clear that Hal wishes to scuttle Paul’s run for mayor.

However, I would have preferred Turow convey this story through the Gianis family itself, especially through such an interesting person as Paul. Except…he couldn’t have done that, because of the surprises he has in store for the reader about the past relationships between the two families. (Paul already knows them.) And the result is that as we move into the novel, the story, unfortunately, becomes more about the revelation of those surprises—as they are timed to coincide with the detective’s and the reader’s gradual understanding of what led to Dita’s death. We therefore move away from the mayoral race and the political texture—and, more significantly, away from the complex family relationships—that would have enriched this novel.

Which means that for me this potential literary novel about family and politics has lowered itself to the level of a crime novel. It has also left the intimacy of the two families to concentrate on the perspectives of two outsiders. The author does make an effort to enrich both Tim and Evon, but they are loners and not especially interesting. Tim is an elderly widower of about 80 who continuously mourns his dead wife, and Evon is a lesbian of 50 who is trying to flee her clinging lover Heather. A lack of tension between these two detectives also serves to flatten their characters.

The heart of this crime novel lies in the title, with the significant action revolving around the identical twins, Paul and Cass. Yes, Cass has confessed and gone to jail for the crime. But was he truly guilty? And, if not, why did he confess? Could it be Paul who was guilty? Or Lidia? Whose blood was actually found on the scene? Or could the killer be someone else?

We learn a lot about DNA, blood samples, fingerprints, and plastic surgery—subjects, note, that belong more to crime novels than to literature. Turow also leaves aside the issue of justice, why and how a possibly innocent man was convicted of murder. (And, until late, why he confessed.) Instead, the emphasis is on whether or not he is guilty, not on the injustice if he is not—which certainly should be an emphasis for an author with literary ambitions.

Turow acknowledges in an Afterward that identical twins were born into his own family (although one died at birth), and the idea of such twins has always fascinated him, especially the love relationship that develops between them. And certainly here he has explored that relationship, what each twin will do for the other. But when he explores it within the context of a crime, rather than its overall effect on family relationships, he has for me lowered his literary sights.

Yes, the author has tried to dress up the relationship by creating two Greek families and recalling the legend of Castor (Cass) and Pollux (Paul), and how the two were conceived. He claims that he has embroidered their legendary fate to create his story here; but it comes across to me as window-dressing to enrich the identical twin theme—albeit provocative window-dressing when you realize the Greek legend. But the result is that the intricacy of the crime’s solution is overwhelmed by this identical twin theme and the self-sacrifice it entails.

And we, in turn, are less involved in the solution to Dita’s murder than in the decision of the twins as a result of their love relationship. Indeed, that decision has very little to do with the crime’s solution, which is the supposed point of this novel. On the other hand, the twin’s love and support of each other does not bring one back to the complex family relationship. Rather, it is a thing apart, from both the two families and the crime itself.

Turow knows how to establish complex family relationships and how to structure a slow revelation of those relationships, as well as how to explore the inside workings of our justice system, particularly in the courtroom. But here he has let the needs of a thriller overwhelm the stories of both families. One will, as a result, approach future Turow novels expecting entertainment rather than a deeper exploration of justice. And expect to witness the external repercussions of love, such as the self-sacrifices here, rather than explore its internal workings—of the pain, for example, felt by these characters for what they did. (January, 2017)

The Fall of Light, by Niall Williams

This 2001 novel comes to us as a legend. It is about a father and his four sons who journey across Ireland, leaving their home, their life, and a stubborn mother behind. The author pretends—or does he?—that this is his family, that he is passing down family tales that have been enhanced by each generation. That is, he writes in the tradition of Irish story telling.

But the proposed reality does not matter. What matters is the beautiful language that is characteristic of all of Williams’ novels, and which is perfectly suited here to the novel’s legendary tone, to its tale of Ireland in the middle of the 19th century, an era of poverty just before the Irish famine that led many families to cross the sea to America.

The adventures of the five Foley men begin as soon as we meet them. They are swept apart as they attempt to cross the raging River Shannon, and their father disappears, leaving the sons alone. Is their father lost? Will they ever see him again? And, later, will each of the sons also reunite, when circumstance also separates them? This novel offers the tale, a romantic tale, of each family member—of Francis the father, of the son Thomas, the twins Finbar and Finan, the youngest son Teige, and Emer, the stubborn mother who has refused to join them.

Frances is a dreamer who has refused to raise his sons to a life of poverty. He steals a telescope from the manor house at which he works, and will forever spend free time gazing through it at the stars. It is a perfect symbol of his desire to escape a family life of poverty, of dependence, and to fulfill his dream of a more satisfying life. It may even be reflected in the novel’s title, as the light of the stars falls toward him on earth.

The oldest son, Thomas, encounters the beautiful Blath, and his pursuit of her makes him the first to be separated from his brothers. We shall later follow him as he crosses the Atlantic and then crosses the United States, joining an army engineering team as it scouts future railroad routes. The remaining three sons are enraptured by a caravan of gypsies. Finbar is seduced by the woman Cait and will follow her troupe across Europe, where he will become its leader with a yearning to return home. His twin Finan joins the gypsies for a while; but, to atone for a crime, he will leave them for a monastery and become a missionary in Africa.

The prominent son in the novel is Teige, whose skill at horsemanship first pleases the gypsies, as he wins a traditional race on a white pony; but he refuses to join them and uses his skill with horses to work for a rich landlord whose daughter seduces him and changes his life. Indeed, his visits to her bedroom at night represent the romantic high point of this novel. But the two have different dreams, and he, too, will cross the ocean, and there will survive because of his skill with horses.

But we are following these characters from the perspective of a legend, and, like many legends, there are high points; but legends also may arrive at uncertain conclusions. And that is true here. For there is no climactic ending, no rush of emotion, as we learn the fates of these characters. What we have, instead, is an imagined future in the mind of their father as he stares at the stars, stares into their future and the future of his family.

He will scan the skies from an island in an estuary of the River Shannon, where he and Teige have built the family’s new home, a site that is the geographical center of this novel. Indeed, it is this isolated island in the estuary that the characters regard as home turf—much as all Ireland sees its identity to be in this small island off the coast of England and France. The Foley’s cluster of buildings also represents the perspective from which the author tells this family story.

As Diana Postlethwaite quotes in The New York Times, ”Always the story returns there. . . . It is as if the teller understands that the island is an image for all Foleys . . . something passionate and impetuous . . . that made each of its men islands in turn.”

To criticize, there may be a little too much coincidence in this novel, both when circumstances seem to change the course of a life—such as a raging river, a seductive woman, or the arrival of gypsies—or when these individual characters have separated and then, casually, rejoin. And yet, this is a legend, after all, enhanced by generations of retelling—and why might not coincidences have crept in to fill certain gaps?

Another mild criticism I have concerns the extended details of some of the brother’s adventures, particularly of Finbar with the gypsies. Granted, the author wanted to include the stories of all four brothers, along with the father, but I was more interested in the adventures and fates of Frances and his two sons, Thomas and Teige. Thus, the long sojourn of Finbar with the gypsies does slow down this novel, even if his will continually draws him toward home on that estuary island.

What ties the book together, indeed, is this sense of family, the yearning the five men have for each other, their continual thinking about the each other, and their desire to be together. This is emphasized by the island home the father and Teige build for themselves. And it is held together by the telescope and the stars, by the dreams of the future they represent. It is a fitting romantic dream that belongs in a legend.

Some have criticized this novel because of its romantic view as well as its coincidences, but Williams might have cast this story as a legend because he was aware of precisely that. Certainly his typically rich and poetic writing style is appropriate to this tale he regards as a legend. And certainly this reader, who is a romantic at heart, will continue to indulge in more of Williams’ novels. (January, 2017)

Tree of Smoke, by Denis Johnson

This 2007 work is a difficult novel to digest. I was drawn to it because it is about the Vietnam War and has received extensive praise. But I find that it is not my kind of novel. It is not about people, but about experiences. And while these are brilliantly described experiences, they are disconnected. For one thing, we jump back and forth between the experiences of the two male characters. For another, we jump ahead continually in time.

The first character is Skip Sands, part of a nebulous CIA operation and nephew of the legendary Colonel Sands, an Edward Lansdale type of character. The second is James Houston, an enlisted soldier in Vietnam and his brother Bill. In both these relationships, Skip and James admire their family counterparts and earn our sympathy and identification, but both also end up on the wrong side of the law. This novel is about why that happens, but their sad fates also frustrate the reader’s need to identify with these characters.

In other words, the message of this novel is the harm that this war did to young men, and by implication to society at large. Not simply because of the reason the U.S. forces were in Vietnam, but because of their actions once there. And in this novel, these actions are quite disorganized. Which has resulted, for me, in a disorganized novel. I ended up reading a novel about those actions rather than a novel about the evolution of these characters. That is, both Skip and James are completely different people at the end of this novel, and it is not clear how or why they changed. Yes, the war, in general, caused it, but the reader does not experience the internal change in each one, only the disorganized experiences that seem to have prompted it.

Moreover, those experiences were, for me, too unpleasant, as well as too disconnected, to draw me into this novel. Yes, the author is showing that they were unpleasant in order to make his point. But they reflect too much for me the modern novelists’ detachment from his characters—resorting to a brilliant objectivity that, for me, inserts a barrier between myself and the characters I am reading about. And I acknowledge that for some this is a positive result. They admire such objectivity. But I wonder if it is because they do not approach the reality they describe with social, spiritual, or moral standards.

B. R. Myers writes a devastating review in The Atlantic, which makes me more comfortable in my reaction, but that review concentrates on Johnson’s writing style more than on its content. Whereas, I was more impressed by the vividness of the style that so often put me in the actual scene. I sensed that the specifics meant that Johnson himself had been to Vietnam and witnessed/experienced that life and that landscape. Which seems to say that, for me, the vividness of the style overwhelmed Myers’ critique of the felicities of style.

Geoff Dyer in The Guardian also sums up this novel: “Johnson is all over the place and he is an artist of strange diligence. It is as if his skewed relationship to the sentence – not really knowing what one is and yet knowing exactly what to do with it – operates, here, at the level of structure. Tree of Smoke is as excessive and messy as Moby Dick. Anything further removed from the tucked-up, hospital corners school of British fiction is hard to imagine. It’s a big, dirty, unmade bed of a book and, once you settle in you’re in no hurry to get out.”

That’s me, caught up in each adventure, that is, until it seemed to go nowhere. Thus, the title, Tree of Smoke, the name of a CIA project, is never explored. And the project is as amorphous as the rest of these disconnected events. Speaking of disconnections, the novel ends with Kathy, a nurse with whom Skip has a brief affair—she appears sporadically, unlinked to other events, throughout the novel—giving a speaking engagement in St. Paul years later. And it is she who expresses the novel’s final line: “All will be saved. All will be saved.” Huh? That upbeat seems to come from nowhere.

Perhaps my fascination with the vivid events of this novel, combined with a struggle to get through it, is best captured by David Ignatius in The Washington Post: “This novel makes large demands on the reader: to submit to its length, to its disorienting language and structure, to the elusive and shattering experience of its characters, and finally to its sheer ambition to be definitive, an encompassing novel for the Vietnam generation. It is a presumptuous book, in other words, and you may resist for the first several hundred pages. But it will grab you eventually, and gets inside your head like the war it is describing — mystifying, horrifying, mesmerizing.”

Yes, this novel jumps around too much for me. From Bill to Skip, from Bill to James, from Skip to the colonel’s lieutenants, and then to Kathy. Also, from year to year, and then to a decade later. All is disconnected. How does Skip get blamed for the colonel’s failed plans? Why does he then turn criminal? Why does James also turn criminal after he comes home to his brother? Why does Kathy lose her faith in God but not in man? I suggest the Vietnam War is too simple an explanation for all this. Especially for a novel that does not get inside its characters.

Johnson’s favorite milieu appears to be the underside of life, whether in the military or back home. And Vietnam offers a fine opportunity to enter that world, both the American world of an ineffectual CIA or military mission and the Vietnam world’s interchangeable allegiances. One should note that there is no military action here for a war novel, no actual spy missions for its espionage atmosphere, only talk and planning and new talk and new planning, a year later, to new off-screen developments. There are also long journeys through nature, but no climactic revelations, no missions accomplished. There are only mysterious assassins, mysterious loners, and the mysterious Vietnamese culture.

Matterhorn remains my favorite novel about the Vietnam War. We follow our soldiers actually fighting. They have a mission. And they succeed or they fail. And react accordingly. (January, 2017)