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)

Being Dead, by Jim Crace

This 1999 work is a novel which the critics loved, but which I loathed. Loathed so much that I skimmed through it in one sitting. I almost did not write any comment, but I finally decided to be honest with myself and with the reader, even if it would expose my prejudices, my blindness, or simply my failings as a critic.

This is the story of Joseph and Celice, an elderly couple found murdered on a sand dune. They were scientists and teachers, unsuited for society but, we learn, perfectly suited for each other. Indeed, these unappealing characters were deeply in love, and went to the dunes to recapture the first sharing of their desire thirty years earlier.

The novel then advances on three levels. The first is their actual death in the immediate past, as the murderer sneaks up, and brains the unaware couple for their valuables. The second is the slow rotting of their bodies and the arrival, for a week, of birds, crabs, and insects to feed on those bodies. The third returns to a more distant past, to the couple’s initial meeting, courtship, and 30-year marriage. It is a marriage of two misfits, and this reader found it difficult to relate to or sympathize with either party. My approach was as clinical as was the author’s to their decaying bodies.

Much of the second half of the novel returns to the present, and concerns their equally uninteresting and estranged daughter as she searches for her missing parents. At this point, one wonders if Crace has deliberately created uninteresting characters in order that the reader focus on the corrupting bodies in the sand. Indeed, is that why he has created the dead couple as zoologists?

Yes, the process of corruption was distasteful to me, as was the details of the actual murder, including the couple’s complete unawareness of the killer as he inches closer. But what turned me off, primarily, was the unpleasantness of all the characters. Again, this is, I believe, because Crace wanted me to concentrate not on the characters but on death itself. And yet, it seems to be the “beauty” of this clinical description of the murder and the decaying bodies that has fascinated critics—along with the objectivity that confronts these unpleasant characters with inevitable death.

Such critics, I surmise, have no belief in or interest in any aspect of one’s character that might continue after death. Much like the author’s own lack of interest in his earlier tale about a Christ-like character spending forty days in the desert. Indeed, my reaction to that work, Quarantine, is consistent with my reaction here: “Crace, however, appears as uncomfortable with the spiritual world as he is comfortable with the physical world. And so while this novel succeeds in literary terms… it fails in its larger mission to discover a truth about a man and the meaning of his life. Crace sees his world precisely, but sees it only on the surface.”

Thus, I will accept that the author has even less interest in this book in the possibility of existence beyond death. But I feel he has stacked his deck too much. He has pushed the fact of inevitable death into our face and twisted it. I do not like being force-fed. I do not like being confronted with unpleasant people who endure an unpleasant death, and who live on only through their decomposing bodies. As if that is all of us that exists. That his decaying hand is found clutching her decaying ankle is not for me the beautiful symbol of love that the author intends.

To sum up, I am not as fascinated with the body as are the author here and his critics. We are more than bodies. We are hearts, minds, and souls. We are families. We are an interdependent society. We are more than two bodies decaying alone on distant sand dunes.

Of course, Grace’s sole purpose here may have been to convey the reality of death. Which explains why he took the various technical steps I have criticized above. If so, my response is that the result is a tour-de-force—and fails to meet my parameters for a work of literature. Simply put, I do not like dead ends. (July, 2015)

The Sea, by John Banville

This 2005 work is a beautifully written novel in which nothing happens, and yet everything happens. It is about one man, art historian Max Morden, as he recalls two incidents from his past. First, his poor youth when he met the wealthy Graces at a seaside resort. And then his maturity when he lost his wife Anna to cancer. And we do not realize until the end that what links these two significant events in his life is death.

The entire novel concerns these memories, as he revisits the seaside resort of Ballyless, Ireland, fifty years later. He stays at the same house in which the Graces stayed one summer, and his stream of consciousness memory flits back and forth from the present to both that youthful summer and the later harrowing months in which his wife died.

The summer-house, called the Cedars, is run in the present by the elderly Miss Vavasour, who has an unclear relationship with one resident, the Colonel, a relationship which Max thinks he interrupts. But he is more into his memories of that summer in which, at age ten, he met the stout, elderly Carlo Grace; his beautiful wife Connie, on whom Max develops a crush; their twin children Myles and Chloe, both Max’s age; and Rose, a young woman who is their governess.

Max has returned to the Cedars to try to recover from the loss of his wife. At first, we think it is because he has fond memories of that summer and the Grace family—such as Mrs. Grace adjusting her body to let him view her panties—and that reliving those childhood moments of happiness will ease his sadness. But eventually we realize it is to understand that summer that he returns. For it was just as unsettling to him as was the loss of his wife.

As the present feeds upon the past, and as the memories flood together, the reader is rarely lost. Except, he does not know where the novel is going. It seems to be a memory novel about Max, but then it turns out to be rather different when a surprise comes. The surprise works, and we look at both Max and the novel in a different way. We see that this is a work about life itself, rather than about Max’s life. And it is more about death than it is about life, and the mysteriousness of death that is part of life. And equally so, it is about memory. About Max’s memory versus reality.

The weakest part of the novel, perhaps because it is the least developed, is Max’s relationship with his daughter Claire, whom he bows to at the end, as an old man, no longer able to resist her. But also difficult to relate to is Anna’s picking up photography in her final months, as if by preserving reality she is holding on to it. It seems to be two cases of Banville fleshing out Max’s life but not extensively so, because his life is not the point of the tale. The point is the impact on him of two dramatic events.

The sea of the title is ever-present, drawing these characters to the resort. And it plays a significant role at the end. But it hovers more as a presence than as a threat. It is most symbolic on the final page, where Max says that it offered a gentle swell. “I was lifted briefly and carried a little way towards the shore and then was set down on my feet as before, as if nothing had happened.” Thus, whatever high drama we confront, we adjust to it. And life goes on. It is just “another of the great world’s shrugs of indifference.”

There is also a perplexing line, the last: “…and it was as if I were walking into the sea.” This is Max as he follows his nurse back into the house. Does it simply mean that he is adjusting to the loss of his wife, as above? Or does it refer to a motivation of Chloe? To be further studied…

But, mainly, there is the drama of the ending. It is shocking, but to me it is not clear. What does it mean? It centers on Max’s childhood experience. But it is less concerned with a loss of innocence than one might expect, and is more about grief, a grief that echoes Max’s loss of his wife.

This climax suggests that the Grace family is acting out a private drama, a drama that Max is not meant to see, but a drama that Rose is willing to share with him. This seems to be crystallized in a late paragraph, after Max has witnessed death, when he writes: “And I thought, too, of the day of the picnic and of her [Rose] sitting behind me on the grass and looking where I was avidly looking and seeing what was not meant for me at all.”

Perhaps she is still willing at the end, after she has witnessed a sexual episode between Max and Chloe. And wants Max to realize the people he is dealing with. But what is he dealing with? It seems to be a hypersexualized Chloe at ten. And a mute Myles. Who are they? And how significant is the earlier reference to the webbing between Myles’ toes?

Also significant is the sentence: “After all, why should I be less susceptible than the next melodramatist to the tale’s demand for a neat closing twist?” Which refers to the structure of the novel more than its content. And the entire novel demonstrates that Banville is aware of structure.

For example, the dramatic surprise in the story line is followed by another surprise, centering on issues of identity. First, one person becomes another person, and then makes a confession that raises an issue of sexual identity. Now, this does explain more than one earlier dramatic scene. But it also suggests that not only was Max’s youthful sexuality confused, but so was his understanding of what he witnessed back then.

To sum up, this is a deep and satisfying novel, but one that requires extra attention from the reader. It also requires patience to appreciate the rich language, the alternating story lines, and the character depth that is hidden beneath the surface. It is understandable why this novel earned the Man Booker Award, and yet why the author considered the award a surprise, believing his novel to be pure art, wheereas previous awards have gone to more commercial, more popular novels.

This definitely encourages me to read further novels by Banville. He explores the interiors of his characters and the major issues we all face, especially that of death. Plus he has a rich style. No wonder he says he writes only a few paragraphs at a sitting, compared to pages when he is writing as Benjamin Black. (May, 2015)

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard

This 1974 work is marvelous nature writing. And even if I am not a student of such writing, I cannot imagine, even in Thoreau, such deep observations of all forms of life, from spiders and salamanders, to dragon flies and starlings, to snakes and frogs, to even rivers and mountains and trees. And underlining all these elements of nature is the act of creation. With the primary question not being why these creatures exist, but why they have all been created so beautiful.

One can infer the direction in which Dillard is going from those who have inspired some of her thinking. They include Thomas Merton, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Blaise Pascal, Martin Buber, Julius of Norwich, William Blake, and, oh yes, Edwin Way Teale, Albert Einstein, John Cowper Powys, Werner Heisenberg, and even W. C. Fields.

But even more, one comes across sentences like these, full of wit:

“It is ironic that the one thing that all religions recognize separating us from our creator—our very self-consciousness—is also the one thing that divides us from our fellow creatures.”

“If God is in one sense the igniter, a fireball that spins over the ground of continents, God is also in another sense the destroyer, lightning, blind power, impartial as the atmosphere.”

“I read about an Eskimo hunter who asked the local missionary priest, ‘If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?’ ‘No,’ said the priest, ‘not if you did not know.’ ‘Then why,’ asked the Eskimo, ‘did you tell me?’”

“The lone ping of being of the first hydrogen atom ex nihilo was so unthinkably, violently radical, that surely it ought to have been enough, more than enough. But look what happens. You open the door and all heaven and hell break loose.”

“Look, in short, at practically anything…and see that not only did the creator create everything, but that he is apt to create anything. He’ll stop at nothing.”

“A dot appears. A fresh-flake. It swells like a balloon; it moves, circles, slows, and vanishes. This is your life.”

And she also asks: “What if I fell in a forest. Would a tree hear me?”

As one moves deeper into this book, it is clear that Dillard loves nature—nature at all levels from tiny molecules to distant stars. And finds more than enough to contemplate in every stroll down to the creek near her Virginia home.

But I am not taken by nature myself. If I am tempted to skim this book at times, it is because I have little interest in the details that fascinate Dillard, the details of birth, struggle, and survival for so many living things: muskrats, praying mantises, frogs, butterflies, sycamores, grubs, beetles, snakes, amoebae, caterpillars, salamanders, plankton, and parasites, etc., etc. What I am interested in, however, are her thoughts that follow these observations.

“Just think: in all the clean beautiful reaches of the solar system, our planet alone is a blot; our planet alone has death.”

“The faster death goes, the faster evolution goes.”

“But wait, you say, there is no right and wrong in nature; right and wrong is a human concept. Precisely, we are moral creatures, then, in an amoral world. The universe that suckled us is a monster that does not care if we live or die.”

“It is our emotions that are amiss. We are freaks, the world is fine, and let us all go and have lobotomies to restore us to a natural state. We can…go back to the creek lobotomized, and live on its banks as untroubled as any muskrat or reed. You first.”

“The world has signed a pact with the devil; it had to. It is a covenant to which every thing, even every hydrogen atom, is bound. The terms are clear: if you want to live, you have to die.”

Dillard has organized her description of nature to encompass a calendar year, and after beginning with winter scenes, she closes with the passing of autumn, as the birds and the monarch butterflies fly south, and the first winter frost arrives. She sums up her appreciation of nature, of the gift of life with: “I think the dying pray at the last not ‘please’ but ‘thank you,’ as a guest thanks his host at the door.”

To sum up, this marvelous evocation of nature, nature in the earth, in the water, and in the air, nature in sunshine and rain, nature in darkness and light, nature in heat and cold. But I am just not into the nature that comprises eighty percent of this book. Instead, I am into the conclusions, the meanings that Dillard extrapolates from her observations of nature.

They are: that nature had a creator. That nature acts without an awareness of mankind. That mankind must accept that nature without complaint. And that both nature and life are a gift from the creator, and all beings who accept this gift of life must also accept the death that goes with it. (March, 2015)

The Tiger’s Wife, by Tea Obreht

This 2010 work is a remarkable novel. And a highly imaginative one. Written by a young woman wise far beyond her years. Wise, especially, in being able to recreate what one speculates was the experience of her family and their suffering in a violent era of two world wars. It is also a complicated novel, shifting back and forth between the woman narrator Natalia’s present life, as a doctor dealing with the ills of society as well as the death of her beloved grandfather, and the life of that grandfather when he is nine years old. a major war is on the horizon, and his innocent life is complicated by the presence of a legendary tiger.

The reader moves back and forth between these two eras of time as well as from a world of reality to a more primitive world of superstition and legend. That is, to the world of the tiger and that of a deaf mute woman who has fled a violent marriage—arranged much like that of the Biblical Jacob—and found solace in the company of that tiger, who has fled the domesticated life of the local zoo after the city was bombed.

The physical descriptions of the war-torn landscape, of ruined cities, distraught citizens, and a fertile countryside, is brilliant, and yet the exact location of these events is never indicated, although it is clearly Eastern Europe and suggests the tumultuous history of Yugoslavia, where the author was born. The explanation appears to be that Obreht is aware that if the legendary aspects of her novel are to be credible she needs to remove that legendary portion from the world of specific reality.

But if the geography is elusive, what is not is the presence of death. In an era of warfare, death is everywhere, of course. And here it is given its reality through “the deathless man,” whom the grandfather continually encounters in his life, a man who is constantly being killed but never dies. He is, in fact, the author’s messenger of death, as he serves coffee to those he meets and then reads the coffee ground to determine if they are about to die. And, yet, like other “villains” of this novel, the author makes him human. She does so by her tale of why he was condemned not to die— because he once relieved a girl he loved from the death that she was fated to suffer. Note also that a subsidiary theme of this novel is how doctors, both the grandfather and the girl, deal with the constant presence of death.

What is amazing is that Obreht, who left Yugoslavia at seven, is now an American and wrote this work while studying for her MFA at Cornell. The novel was published when she was only 25. Her talent was immediately recognized by The New Yorker, when it ran an excerpt, and one can see many chapters that could have been extracted from the final manuscript. For she has written here a number of set pieces and a number of character studies that can easily stand alone. Not that they do not belong, for the character studies, in particular, humanize and help the reader to understand characters whose actions would otherwise seem abhorrent. For even as they portray the violence in these particular human beings, such as Luka, the abusive husband of the tiger’s wife, they also demonstrate how such villains came to commit their violent acts.

The structure of the novel revolves around Natalia’s attempt to discover the circumstance of the mysterious death of her grandfather. How well did he know he was going to die? Why did he leave home and his wife in order to die? Why did he go to the small town he went to? Why did he say he went there to visit Natalia, when that was not the case? In her own attempt to answer those questions while she is away on a mission to help the unfortunate, Natalia recalls her life with her grandfather, beginning with how he took her regularly to the zoo, where he passed on to her his fascination with tigers. As she searches for her answers, she discovers—from her memories and from those who knew her grandfather—about the deathless man, the tiger, and the tiger’s “wife.”

The major problem I had with this novel was being unable to remember where the story was each day when I returned to it. As vivid as the writing was, as interesting as the various tales were, the events themselves did not stick with me from one day to the next. Which perhaps goes to the point of some critics, who have said that there is not enough substance behind the beautiful, evocative writing. Nor enough connection among Natalia’s story, her grandfather’s story, the war story, and the legends of the deathless man and of the tiger and his wife. Another explanation for the abrupt moving back and forth in time is technical. For it helps to create suspense when we leave one era at a climactic moment, and return to the drama of the other era.

Yet, to balance that, I was fascinated each day by the content I was reading, and in my final analysis, I do believe the pieces fit together. And if the final fates of the characters is not clear—that of the tiger, of the tiger’s wife, of the tiger’s wife’s husband, of the grandfather, and even of others I have not mentioned, such as the Darisa, a great bear of a hunter and the tiger’s enemy—is that not often the case in real life? And is it especially not the case in the legends we recall, where the otherworld mysteriousness is the point, not the actual conclusion of the tale?

I believe Obreht wanted to pour into this work everything she felt about life and its meaning. That such meaning, for example, goes far beyond the reality we live, that it also includes a reality we don’t live but do imagine. Often, what we wish had happened. Which can turn into legend. But the author also shows that the meaning of life can be found in death, in whether we accept its arrival and in how we react to that knowledge. Thus, the presence of the deathless man.

I often disagree with Michiko Kakutani, but her New York Times review offers a summary of Obreht’s approach that is quite interesting: “It’s not so much magical realism in the tradition of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Gunter Grass,” she writes, “as it is an extraordinary limber exploration of allegory and myth making and the ways in which narratives (be they superstitions, cultural beliefs or supernatural legends) reveal—and reflect back— the identities of individuals and communities: their dreams, fears, sympathies and hatreds.”

What Obreht accomplishes so effectively here is to mine the specific to reveal the universal. Time and again, her characters extract great truths from their daily life, their daily suffering. That war and its violence, in current parlance, is a game-changer, that our lives are never the same again, that we see life far differently, that out of daily experience comes a long view of history, of both man’s significance in that history and the value of each man’s life.

A story built around the relationship between a grandfather and a granddaughter is quite rare, and Obreht discusses this in an interview. She says that grandchildren often cannot relate to their parents’ lives but do want to know about their grandparents’ lives, lives that belong to an earlier era they cannot identify with but that they are curious about. She also says her own father was not in her life, but that she had a close relationship with her grandfather, who often did take her to the zoo. But beyond that, she says, this novel is not autobiographical. Of course, emotionally, it is quite autobiographical, and her relationship with her grandfather is why it is so successful. It is the starting point, and gives the novel its heart.

In the same interview, Obreht says she is not sure what she will write next, but does acknowledge her continuing interest in the Balkans. And I myself would not mind visiting that world again. But this raises the same question I had on finishing her novel. What will come next? She has put into this work so much of her knowledge of life, so much of her own family relationships, so much of her own awareness of legend and the imagination, what is left to inspire her? One might find it difficult to move from this to her view of American life. Perhaps there is something in her relationship with her mother, with whom she moved to Cyprus, to Egypt, and then to America. There may also be a germ in the fact that her grandfather was Catholic and that her grandmother was Moslem, and how they got along in a society that often did not.

In any event, both the literary world and I will be deeply interested in what comes next. It will have to be truly marvelous to top this work. Which often second novels are not. Perhaps the key will be how much more she discovers about life. How much more she is able to penetrate into the heart and into the soul of the people she writes about. This novel, as profound as it is, is more about surfaces. About the legends that we build to explain our lives. I might be more interested in the changes that occur within her characters, perhaps as a result of the same violence that inspires these legends. (November, 2014)