This year (2019)
Previous years: 2018;
Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi
The Great Believers
Love is Blind
The Silent Patient
Free Food for
The Makioka Sisters
Rules of Civility
The Sound of Waves
The Setting Sun
The Sea of Fertility:
Temple of Dawn
Decay of the Angel
Sweet Swan of Avon
The Song of Achilles
Boakye was a real-life person who
lived from 1827 to 1904, and this is the story of his life told not as true
biography but rather as a kind of historical novel. When reading the book as
a novel, the story sometimes seems rather contrived, difficult to believe.
And yet in an Afterword the author explains how he has used the personal
letters of Boakye and his correspondents, along with many further historical
documents, so it must be true to life.
Boakye's father was the king of Ashanti, a kingdom on the
west coast of Africa in modern day Ghana. And thus he was a prince. But he
was not the crown prince. Instead his cousin, Kwame Poku, the son of the
sister of the king, was the crown prince owing to the fact that in Ashanti,
inheritance was passed down through the matriarchal line.
At the beginning of the story, Kwasi and Kwame are very
close friends, doing everything together. They live in great privilege in
Ashanti as princes, telling us about their lives, and we see them contrasted
with all the slaves in the community. There is a Dutch military presence
which had been organizing the slave trade, a fort to hold the slaves which
had been bought from the local slave traders before they were shipped off to
the Dutch colonies in the Americas and elsewhere. Kwasi's father was much
involved in this.
But then Kwasi's father,
the king, decided to send both Kwasi and Kwame off to Holland with a Dutch
expedition which had reached their country, presumably in order to allow
them to become educated in the ways of Europe and so bring back this
knowledge to Ashanti. Thus the two young princes, perhaps 10 or 12 years
old, were transported by the Dutch navy to Holland where they were
enrolled in a small private school.
They were treated as
princes. Being guests of the Dutch royal family, becoming intimate friends
with one or another of the Dutch princes and princesses. And they became
highly educated. Somehow the ties with Ashanti became weaker. Kwasi
gradually thought of himself as being Dutch, rejecting what he remembered
of the life in Ashanti. But Kwame returned. Staying in the Dutch
settlement on the coast, he sent written inquiries to the Kingdom, asking
if he could come home. But he had forgotten his native language and so his
letters were written in Dutch. The King thus refused to answer and wanted
nothing more to do with him. After years of vegetating as a guest in the
Dutch garrison, he committed suicide.
Kwasi on the other hand
remained in Europe, going on to university in Germany, becoming a mining
engineer. He was then sent by the Dutch to Indonesia to be involved in
mining operations. But this was extremely unsatisfactory. His superior was
an old school rival who treated him badly. He was unable to obtain
advancement in his profession. Eventually he learned that the Dutch
authorities had decided that it would not be appropriate for an African, a
non-European, to be in a leading position in the colony of Indonesia since
it was important to maintain the idea that only Europeans could be allowed
to be leaders.
And so much of the book
takes place towards the end of Kwasi's life in the tropics of the East
Indies, not East Africa. People still respect him as a true prince. He has
had a family and children. But somehow he is not fulfilled. Perhaps he
could have remained in Europe where he could have followed his profession
more successfully as a mining engineer.
The story imagines an
astronaut, endlessly circling the earth in the international space
station. He has a euphoric, almost religious feeling during a space-walk.
But then Houston calls and he is told that his daughter has been killed in
a car accident. Furthermore his wife has decided to leave him, going off
to live with her parents somewhere far away from Houston. He is devastated
by all this, becoming wracked by migraines, unable to fulfill his duties
in the space station. Only after weeks of delays due to technical problems
with the launching of rockets was he able to be sent back to the earth.
And so we meet him in his
empty house in some soulless, half developed suburb of new houses
somewhere in the neighborhood of Houston. His wife had cleared everything
out, leaving him with a gigantic sofa which he hated. She also left a bare
bed and the basics of the kitchen. But he goes to the local diner to eat
hamburgers and drink coffee.
He is alone. Splitting
headaches. He drinks lots of beer. He notices a loud-mouthed foreigner,
perhaps drunk, at the diner making inappropriate remarks to the young
waitress. And then there is a young woman, a mother, wearing tight-fitting
clothes, grabbing his attention in the newly built house near to his,
separated by a couple of vacant lots. Eventually he winds up in her bed.
There are strange scenes. Her business-suited husband returns from some
sort of business trip or other and greets him as a friendly neighbor. But
it turns out that while the astronaut was up in space he slept with the
The loud-mouthed man at
the diner turns out to be an immigrant from Slovakia where he was a
technical assistant at an observatory. So he and the astronaut spend late
evenings out on the next weed-infested vacant lot, sitting on the sofa
which they have moved out there, drinking beer and occasionally looking at
stars through an old telescope set up on a tripod.
The astronaut meditates
about his treatment of his dead daughter. He considers that he has a
special relationship with numbers. They all have different colors for him.
And his daughter experienced that too. So he imagines that she was a
genius. But he has pushed her too far. She was supposed to go to a special
school for geniuses and devote herself to calculating astronautical
things. Despite the fact that she was a "straight A" student in her
(normal) high school, she defied him by becoming a cheerleader. And so he
went off to space, endlessly circling the world, and she drove her car
into a tree, having had too much to drink.
This depressing story was
redeemed by the idea of floating through space.
by Michael Ondaatje
This one takes place in
England just after the Second World War. The story is narrated by
Nathaniel, who is at first 14 years old. We are not told what the family
was doing during the war, but now his parents tell Nathaniel and his
sister that they will be leaving for some time, going to the Far East.
Singapore or something. The father leaves, the mother stays on for a few
extra weeks and then leaves as well. They are not left alone at home.
Instead various strange characters seem to inhabit the house.
Nathaniel takes on a few
odd jobs. He washes dishes and gets to know a waitress a few years older
than himself and we learn of his erotic introduction to sexual affairs.
One of the strange characters about the house is given the name of The
Darter, and he seems to be involved in smuggling greyhounds into England
in the dead of night in order to manipulate the dog races. Nathaniel
becomes very much part of The Darter's affairs, eventually thinking of him
as a kind of replacement for his father.
Suddenly Nathaniel and his
sister are attacked by some unexplained, mysterious people, and all the
mysterious people who had been living at his house, together with his
mother who appears from nowhere, save both his sister and him.
Then the story progresses
10 or 15 years to the late 1950s. Nathaniel has been recruited into the
British Secret Service. He works in a mysterious, anonymous office
building in London, working in the archives. He secretly looks up the
files on his mother. The story is that after the end of the war she was
involved in covering up the war crimes committed by the British,
eliminating people who might prove to be an embarrassment to future
Well, the book was nicely
written and it was fun to read of Nathaniel's adolescent adventures. The
rest was a bit too mysterious for me. Undoubtedly though, such things are
true to life.
Michael Ondaatje is the
author of The English Patient, which was made into a famous movie. I did
see the beginning of the movie on television years ago, but after a half
hour, the arrogance of the main character put me off and I stopped
The story is concerned
with the (male) homosexual scene in Chicago in the 1980s. Everybody is
homosexual, dying of AIDS. The one exception is a young woman, Fiona, who
is the sister of Nico whose funeral introduces us to the story at the
beginning of the book. Fiona becomes the caring sister figure to all of
these vulnerable young men.
In order to brighten up
this dreary story the author has developed a number of subplots. Yale, not
the name of the university but rather one of the "gay" men (to use the
currently politically correct euphemism), is employed in an art gallery
attached to one of the universities in Chicago. He receives a letter from
an old woman, Nora, who happens to have been a great aunt of Nico, living
up in Wisconsin, somewhere along that peninsula north of Green Bay. She
explains that she was living in Paris back in the 1910s and 20s, dabbling
in art and serving as a model for a few famous artists: Modigliani, and so
on, and that they gave her a number of drawings and paintings in lieu of
money. She wants to give it to the art gallery. But her family thinks that
these things might be worth lots of money and so they would like to sell
them on the open market - a very reasonable idea, given the ridiculous
prices such things fetch.
So Yale drives up,
together with his boss who, although married, is of course secretly
homosexual, and, during a later trip also with Roman, the post-doc student
assigned to Yale who is more or less secretly homosexual.
And then, finally, the
book jumps back and forth between these doings in Chicago in the 1980s and
Paris in 2015, where Fiona, now a mature woman, is seeking her long-lost
daughter, Claire. This subplot seems to have even less relevance to the
story except perhaps in that Claire hates Fiona owing to the fact that
Fiona, pregnant with Claire, unfortunately missed the final dying moments
of Yale due to the impatient Claire who chose just this moment to be born.
And so Fiona, who really didn't want to be pregnant in the first case, did
not really love Claire as a child.
All of this AIDS and HIV
business led me to again click about in the internet, and I found a very
interesting newer documentary which can be viewed in full in Youtube.
Namely House of
. A young fellow tells us at the beginning that all his
life, AIDS and HIV have been constantly talked about. And so he wants to
find out what these things really are. He interviews Luc Montagnier, the
discoverer of the HIV virus; Robert Gallo, who went on American national
television to proclaim that HIV is the cause of AIDS; Kary Mullis, who won
the Nobel prize for the invention of the polymerase chain reaction, which
is relevant to the western blot HIV test, and many other experts as well.
The person at the WHO who is responsible for all AIDS statistics, and so
forth. He submits himself to an HIV test in South Africa. Then is told by
leading experts in Germany and in the US about all the different tests and
why there is no definitive test.
The puzzle is that,
although we were told in the 1980s that we would all be dead of HIV and
AIDS by now, in fact we are still alive. In fact, contrary to what we were
told then, and contrary to the hysteria in this book by Rebecca Makkai,
HIV is, according to a bulletin
issued by the CDC
(the Center for Disease Control of the United
States) for doctors, "no longer defined as a communicable disease of
public health significance".
In the film House of
Numbers, Luc Montagnier tells us that he no longer believes HIV alone
causes AIDS. Instead, "cofactors" are needed. So what could these
The film examines some
possibilities. During the 1970s and 80s, when homosexuality was declared
to be no longer illegal, many young men went to these centers, in San
Francisco, New York and Chicago, and lost themselves in an orgy of
self-indulgence. In order to make anal intercourse less painful they
continually sniffed "poppers", alkyl nitrites, which while producing a
euphoric feeling also had the effect of relaxing the sphincter muscle.
While attending the parties and bath houses of the scene, other drugs:
heroin, cocaine, liquor... flowed freely while the men coupled with
a hundred or more different men each month. Dysentery, even cholera became
rampant, not to mention the usual venereal diseases, and yet the orgy went
Is it any wonder that the
result was AIDS, and that people who live a moderate life, whether they be
homosexual or not, do not develop AIDS?
But there is another
candidate as cofactor which is perhaps even more potent than these
"recreational" drugs. Namely AZT
and the other "antiviral" drugs. For example in the film, a woman explains
that she had tested "positive" to HIV in one or another of the tests. She
joined a group of women who had thus been deemed to have the stigma of
AIDS. As I recall, there were 17 women in the group and of those 17 only
she and two others refused to obey the urgent advice of the doctors to
take their antiviral medicines. Now, years later, just three of the group
are still alive. Namely the three who refused the medicine. Many similar
cases are also dealt with.
Could it be that many, if
not most cases of AIDS are caused by the medicine which is supposed to
cure it? Obviously this is a question which society cannot tolerate.
Imagine the consequences if say the World Health Organization, WHO, were
to declare that AZT was one of the main causes of AIDS. Sorry. We
apologize for our understandable mistake of judgement. Please forgive us.
An impossible idea. And so
anyone who questions the received HIV -> AIDS hypothesis, regardless of
how famous and distinguished they may have earlier been, must now be
labeled an absurd, insane conspiracy theorist who believes that the earth
is flat and the moon is made of green cheese. There is a long list of
famous professors who have thus been stigmatized.
At the beginning of the
book, Brodie Moncur is working as a piano tuner for Channon, a Scottish
piano firm in Edinburgh, in 1896. He is summoned to the office of the
owner of the company and offered a job in the Paris branch. And the story
develops from there.
He falls in love with Lika
Blum, a beautiful Russian woman who is together with John Kilbarron, a
famous concert pianist. There are many twists and turns of the plot.
Brodie travels about Europe with Kilbarron, Lika, and Kilbarron's menacing
brother Malachi, setting up and tuning Kilbarron's concert grand piano to
Things become dramatic in
St. Petersburg and at a nearby country dacha. Malachi finally finds Brodie
and Lika together in bed in the village hotel; Kilbarron's piano is
sabotaged before the opening concert, exposing him before the assembled
Petersburg aristocracy. There is an early morning duel with pistols by the
Neva river, the escape from Russia. And then we follow Brodie in the years
that follow. He is lonely, thinking only of the lost Lika. And finally he
ends up at the other end of the earth in the Andaman islands.
Everything William Boyd
writes is enjoyable to read. His style can be so varied. Some of the
reviewers have aptly compared the present book to a Chekhov story.
According to the
description at amazon.com, this book lies in the category of "thrillers".
There are various possible ways to interpret the word "thrill". Some
people say that they are thrilled by something if they find it to be good.
A common exaggeration of everyday speech. On the other hand I think that a
movie which is categorized as a thriller could be expected to be filled
with hectic, abrupt images and changes of scene, wild movements, loud
music and crashing noises. But how can a novel be a "thriller"?
I wasn't thrilled by the
magnificence of the plot or the dialogue. It was indeed easy to read, but
not thrillingly so. But it did have many unexpected changes in what we
thought the story was about. In the end all of the loose threads do make
sense and we see that the characters are not at all what we thought they
were. So it was a fun read.
Therefore to summarize the
plot as we believe it to be through most of the book...
The "silent patient" is
Alicia Berenson, an artist, whose husband is Gabriel, a photographer. They
seem to be a happy couple, but at the beginning of the book it seems that
Alicia has murdered Gabriel, shooting him multiple times through the head.
Afterwards she speaks no more. Has she gone mad, suffering some psychic
illness which inhibits speech? Or is she simply play-acting, consciously
refusing to speak?
While awaiting trial,
presumably out on bail, she paints an interesting picture, a self
portrait, with the title "Alcestis". This is the name of a Greek
by Euripides, first produced in 438 B.C.
The main character though
is Theo Faber, a psychotherapist. He is also the narrator, and so we learn
lots about him without at first understanding why he is telling us so much
about himself. He also tells us about his efforts to understand Alicia and
get her to start talking. Perhaps she will tell us what the story of
Alcestis has to do with the murder.
The author is a Korean
living in New York, as are practically all the characters in this story.
They were born of parents who immigrated to the United States some time
ago, perhaps in the 1960s and 70s. They are highly educated: Harvard,
Yale, Princeton,... and we follow them as they advance into their
professional lives, with lots of ups and downs in the Big City. With the
sole exception of Elle, they are all extremely sexually promiscuous, yet
they are hard working on their way to success. Reading what the author
tells us in her website or on the blurb of the book, she seems to be
describing for us, in outline, her life up till now. The main character is
Casey Han, quite different from Elle, who we follow for a number of years
after her graduation from Princeton in her various jobs and affairs in New
I very much enjoyed the
book, reading on to find out what happens to Casey. But there is no great
dream, no unexpected twists of the plot. So I suppose one could say that
this is a "Bildungsroman". If anything, the author is just trying
to tell us what it is like to be a young, second generation Korean living
in New York City.
Indeed, I have read that
these days the smartest students at MIT, Cal Tech, Stanford, and all the
rest are Asians, in particular Koreans.
When I first came to
Germany in 1975, after finishing my degree in Canberra, I had only a
rudimentary grasp of the language and so I decided to take part in a
course of German for Foreigners which was being offered at the University.
But perhaps the main reason was that I thought that it might be possible
to meet some Japanese or Koreans who would be interested in playing the
game of go. There were no Japanese in the course, but I did get to know a
Korean, and we kept in touch for a number of years.
Of course he was very much
better at go than I was. As I recall he was studying sociology, which
meant nothing to me, but in 1976, just after Jimmy Carter was elected to
be President of the US, my friend asked me to correct the English of a
letter he had written. At that time, South Korea was being ruled by the
oppressive dictator, Park
. Perhaps that was the reason so many Koreans migrated to
the United States in those days. My friend wrote that he represented a
group of Korean students in Germany, and he hoped that Jimmy Carter would
do something to free his country from the oppression under which it
I told him that it was
dangerous and ridiculous to send off such a letter to a politician in
America. At best it would simply be tossed in the garbage; at worst, and
more probably, it would be passed on to the secret police of South Korea.
And yet he insisted on sending the letter. (In 1979 Park Chung-hee was
assassinated, allowing democracy to prevail and rendering the politics of
my friend less dangerous. In fact recently, on a whim, I googled his name
and I see that he is also now an old man, a professor of information
strategy in Korea.)
Through him I got to know
the Korean students here. I remember a couple of times we had the whole
apartment full of Koreans, with 8 or 10 go boards, everybody playing. Many
of them had high dan ratings.
He traveled back to Korea
to marry, telling me about the ceremonies involved, the elaborate
calligraphy, and then he returned with his wife, a very outgoing, happy
person. A year or two later they had their first child.
I particularly remember
the first birthday party. All of the Koreans were there and we were the
only "westerners". The first birthday is considered to be very important.
Up until then it was thought that the baby was still not a complete
person, and so the first birthday party was a welcoming of the baby into
Reading this book by Min
Jin Lee gives a strangely different picture than the one we had of the
Korean students here. They had no thought of remaining in Germany, this
foreign country. They were concentrating on doing well in order to succeed
in the future in Korea, respecting all of their proud traditions. After
some years my friend returned to Korea and I lost track of the others. I
sometimes think of them, what fine people they were.
The story of this book
ranges over four generations of a Korean family, at first living in the
occupied "colonized" Korea of the 1910s and then later in Japan itself,
the homeland of the oppressors. Min Jin Lee describes in endless detail
what the Japanese are like when they are dealing with Koreans. Of course
during the colonial period, Korean society was devastated, life almost
impossible. In Japan the Korean immigrants were treated as filth and we
are told that even today, children of Korean ancestry of the 3rd or 4th
generation are regarded as foreigners, having to register themselves as
There seems to exist a
kind of schizophrenic perception of Japan, at least for we non-Japanese.
For example I once read somewhere that as an exercise in German - Japanese
relations, young schoolchildren were asked in the respective countries to
draw pictures of what they imagined things were like in the other country.
The German children drew pictures of smiling children with cherry trees in
blossom, pagodas, Buddhas and all those other things. The Japanese
children drew pictures of soldiers, tanks, guns, explosions, everything
crisscrossed with lines representing bullets, blood.
Well, Germany must live
with its past. But the death marches, death camps, tortures, and all the
other horrors Japan inflicted on the lands it invaded during that period
are not forgotten. And the Japanese in general seem to be still unwilling
to acknowledge their past. But to be fair, the sufferings caused by the
European colonial powers should also be taken into account. Not to mention
the brutality of the United States in the Philippines at the beginning of
I have never been to
Japan, and I have only known few Japanese people, so I have no particular
basis for sympathizing with the grim picture Min Jin Lee paints. But when
I was studying at the Australian National University in Canberra,
especially when doing my graduate degree, I did get to know one or two
Japanese. They came to Australia to improve their English. One friend I
knew for a year or two had a name which was well known. One of the big
Japanese industrial groups. He told me that he was indeed part of the
controlling family. We used to play golf together.
In Australia golf is a
sport for everybody. As I remember, the membership of the Canberra Golf
Club, as it was then, cost perhaps 25 dollars for the year. That entitled
you to play as much as you wanted whenever you wanted. What a contrast to
the expense of golf here in Europe! And I think that in those days the few
Japanese students at the ANU thought it would be a good opportunity to
improve their golf game as well.
I also remember taking my
friend down to my parents place on the coast at Pambula for the weekend.
My parents reminisced about their adventures during the second world war,
while my friend had little to say. One day we drove over to the big wood
chip operation on the opposite side of Twofold Bay from Eden. Then, as
now, people were protesting about the fact that native trees were being
chopped up and the chips being sent to Japan to be made into paper. Thus
there was much security about the place. We drove up unannounced, I just
thought it would be interesting to peer at things through the fence, but
my friend seemed slightly angry at not being able to inspect the plant
personally. After all, how were the guards to know who he was? He smoked a
cigarette or two and then we drove back. Writing all this just now brings
back these forgotten memories. And I've forgotten what his first name was.
Then another story is that
I got to know an American who was also doing graduate studies at the ANU.
I even remember his name: Larry Brown. Unlike with me, you will get
nowhere if you try to google it. He was a really nice fellow, a friend to
everybody. I think he was doing physics, or else chemistry. He told me
that he had studied with Richard Feynman, and he had even gone camping
with him: tents, bonfires and all that, out in the California desert.
Whew! Very impressive! Larry was also a very good tennis player and I
could hardly give him a good game. A very athletic, healthy type. He told
me that he was sometimes playing tennis with the Crown Prince of Japan.
Could it have been the current Emperor, Naruhito
who was in Australia as a young teenager in 1974? I certainly never met
the Crown Prince and I wondered if Larry was just telling me nonsense.
But I'm sure it is true
that the Japanese are a very insular people. Perhaps things are changing.
And one must appreciate the myths people in different countries tell
themselves about their existence.
Tanizaki wrote this book
in the 1940s, serializing it between 1943 and 1948. The story takes place
a few years before then, the late 1930s and early 40s, in Osaka and Tokyo.
We read of timeless traditions. The story could just as well have been
placed 50 or 100 years before, or even in the more remote, poetic ancient
times. There is no hint in the slow development of the story, with all its
subtle emotions of the characters, that Tokyo and Osaka will soon be
subject to massive firebombings from high flying B-29s, accompanied by
Mustang fighters. Or of the death camps and all the sufferings Japan was
causing in the countries of Asia which it was occupying. At most, we are
told that the occasional celebration at a restaurant was to be more
subdued than usual in order to respect the "national emergency". There is
no anticipation of all the suicides at the end of the war, and the fiery
obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by atomic bombs. The author
preferred to write about more peaceful times and the reader can imagine
that the seemingly bizarre placing of this story in the midst of the War
in the Pacific was an aberration to be best ignored.
The four sisters were of
the Makioka family of Osaka. The father was a wealthy industrialist of
some sort, but now the business is in decline, or perhaps it was sold. One
way or another the family still thinks of itself as being upper class
despite now living in somewhat straightened circumstances. The oldest
sister lives in the "main house" in Osaka, but during the story the "main
house" moves to Tokyo. We imagine that the main house is some sort of
mansion, but then we learn that it is a rather rundown old place in need
of repair. Later, the oldest sister and her family - husband and six
children - move to Tokyo into a totally ramshackle, flimsy house. The
second oldest sister is also married and living in the much more
comfortable second house in Osaka. She has just one daughter who is
perhaps 8 or 10 years old. Finally there is the third sister, Yukiku, who
is still unmarried, and then the youngest sister, Taeko.
The rule is that a younger
sister is not allowed to marry before all her older sisters have married.
And Yukiku is a problem. She is already 30 years old and she has refused
one suitor after the other. Only occasionally now do possible suitors for
Yukiko appear. When they do appear they are "investigated" by private
investigators. For example towards the beginning of the book the
negotiations with one possible suitor go on and on, with formal meetings,
proper ceremonies. After much time, energy and expense has been incurred,
the investigator reports that the sister of the candidate had suffered
from depression some time ago, thus indicating possible weaknesses in the
candidate's family and so ruling him out. During all this, the "main
house" must be asked for permission for each possible step. And the main
house is always slow to answer and is reluctant to make any decision.
Poor little Taeko already
has someone to marry her if only Yukiku would hurry up and marry herself.
She becomes more and more independent, earning money herself by sewing and
making dolls, much to the disapproval of the main house.
We follow all the ups and
downs of Taeko and Yukiku, thinking more and more about how they should
lead their lives, becoming by turns angry and yet understanding of the
main house. I enjoyed the book, reading on to its resolution at the end.
It has nothing to do with war. But in reality I am afraid that the main
house would have been consumed in a horrible firestorm.
The author, with his
strange name, also wrote A Gentleman in Moscow, a book which I
found to be too silly to finish reading. This one was his first novel. It
describes something he knows about - living in Manhattan - and, at least
according to the review in the New York Times, the experiences of the
heroine, Katey, are not so unlike Towles own initial experiences of the
Big City. The story is placed in the late 1930s, the end of the
depression, but still a time we imagine to be more elegant than the
We are told that Towles
was for 20 years an investment banker on Wall Street and that now he lives
in the elegant Gramercy Park district of New York. The story is full of
rich young people traveling about from the "Hamptons" to the City. We have
the feeling that the author panders to these riches. Indeed, I also wonder
what it must be like to own billions of dollars, thousands of millions. We
think of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Was the world of those people in the 1930s
more elegant than that of the rich of today?
A story about modern
billionaires would disgust me, but I enjoyed this one.
A simple story about two
young people on an island in the strait at the entrance of Isa Bay in
Japan into the Pacific. The island corresponds, more or less, to Kami-shima
The boy, Shinji, is perhaps 17 or 18 years old. He is a hand on a fishing
boat which goes out every day. He is strong, upright, honest, a true child
of nature. Hatsue, the girl, has grown up on another island. She has
become an Ama, a traditional Japanese diving
, diving for kelp or abalone, and she joins the other diving
women of the island. The time of the story is just after the Second World
War and we learn that Shinji's father was killed when he was out on a
small, open fishing boat, machine gunned by an American warplane.
is famous not only as a great writer who was nearly awarded
the Nobel Prize for literature, but also for the fact that he committed seppuku
traditional Japanese suicide, in 1970. I had always thought that somebody
who was so fanatical as to do such a horrible thing in peacetime, for
"fun", could not write anything really worthwhile. But this book surprised
me. A wonderfully lighthearted little tale, capturing a beautiful moment
A very dark story about an
aristocratic family in Japan which has become almost destitute after the
upheavals of the Second World War. The narrator is Kazuko, the daughter.
She is about 30 years old and has left her husband to return to her mother
and the family home. The mother has tuberculosis. There is not enough
money for them to stay in the home in Tokyo and so an uncle has arranged
for them to move to a smaller house out in the country. No servants. She
must help, working in the fields.
Her brother Naoji has been
away in the army, stationed in the South Pacific. But he returns to the
dismay of Kazuko. He is a drunkard, obtaining what little money is left
from the sick, doting mother to lose in debauchery with his pals somewhere
in Tokyo. When he is sober, Naoji thinks of suicide, but also vaguely of
literary ventures. He has a friend in the city, Uehara, a degenerate,
obscene man who is a recognized author. And so, in her hopeless anguish,
Kazuko decides that her mission in life is to have a baby from Uehara.
Eventually Naoji does
succeed in killing himself and the mother sinks into a diseased oblivion,
but Kazuko lives on, pregnant with Uehara's baby.
perhaps saw himself to some degree in the character of Naoji.
He attempted suicide many times in his life, becoming an alcoholic, and
eventually he succeeded, dying in 1948.
This is a kind of
"thriller", or criminal novel, dealing with the Kennedy assassination. Or
maybe one might even call it an historical novel, since Kennedy really was
assassinated and we don't know the details. But dignifying the book in
such a way would really be ridiculous. Thus, since I am a great fan of the
more "serious" (a vague term at best) speculations about this whole
business, I was disappointed.
The story is based on the
idea that the New Orleans mobster, Carlos Marcello, alone, with no help
from any other quarter, arranged the hit on President Kennedy. Then,
fearing the wrath of the FBI, CIA, and all those other secret-state
organizations, such as they were back in 1963, he tried to eliminate all
possible people who were concerned with it: the hit-man, the people who
drove the hit-man to the scene of the crime at Dallas, even the man who
drove the getaway car a couple of days before the hit and parked it in a
convenient parking space near Dealey Plaza. All of these people must be
eliminated before the FBI and all those other secret police people could
get to them, and thus get back to Carlos Marcello himself.
So the main character of
the book is a man named Frank Guidry, a low-level lieutenant in Marcello's
organization. He was the one who parked the getaway car in Dallas without
knowing what he was doing. The assassin sent to kill Guidry is somebody
named Barone. Thus the book consists of a corpse-littered chase from Texas
to Las Vegas, with things lightened somewhat by Guidry picking up a woman
with her two small daughters along the way and falling in love with them.
Of course the precise
details behind the Kennedy assassination remain a mystery. But given all
the facts that we do know, for example as explained in the book "JFK
and the Unspeakable
", by James Douglas, it is simply not believable
could have been alone responsible. And even if he, or Santo
, or Meyer
, or some other mobster was assigned the task of arranging the
details of the hit, it is clear that they would have known that J
and the FBI would give them no trouble.
This is a series of four novels which are so closely
linked as to be one single, long story. It takes place in Japan in leaps
of 20 years. In the first novel the time is 1912, then 1932, and so on.
The character Shigekuni Honda is at first finishing his schooling in 1912
with the aim of studying law. In 1932 he is a respected Judge in Osaka.
The upheavals in the second novel cause him to resign his position and
become a practicing lawyer. And they lead to a break from the 20 year
cycle in the third novel, where Honda travels to India in 1940 to be
confronted with mystical philosophy. He has become wealthy and glides
through the Second World War in a world apart, meditating on the meaning
of existence. In 1952 he has unexpectedly become extremely wealthy, his
legal practice having benefited from some technical changes in the laws of
Japan during the American occupation. Then in the final novel, Honda is an
old man. To preserve the 20 year cycle the time should have been 1972, but
the author, having declared that upon completion of this entire work he
intended to commit suicide, killed himself using the horrible method of seppuku
on November 25,
The whole thing is
concerned with reincarnation, the transmigration of souls. Mishima studied
what has been written on this subject and he gives us elaborate
descriptions of the history and the philosophy of the idea. We learn that,
according to one school of Buddhist thought, the soul doesn't exist.
Instead we are all part of the wholeness of the Universe, which is
eternal. Another school of thought has it that after death, the soul
becomes like a 5 or 6 year old child, flitting about throughout the world,
invisible to us, for a period between 7 and 77 days. Eventually, certainly
within 77 days, it sees a man and a woman copulating and, despite being
somewhat repelled by the sight, enters the woman's womb and its next life.
Who knows what awaits us
after death? The author was most impatient to find out. But I'm sure that
most people share my view that there is no need to hurry matters along
more swiftly than would otherwise be the case.
In the first novel, Honda
is a relatively minor figure, being the friend of the main character,
Kiyoaki Matsugae. Kiyoaki seems to live in a dream world and he keeps a
diary, recording all his dreams. Upon his death, Honda is given the diary,
reading of various seemingly prophetic things. And so, in the second book,
when Honda meets the main character, Isao Iinuma, he suspects that Isao
might be the reincarnation of Kiyoaki despite the fact that Isao's
character is totally unlike that of Kiyoaki. His suspicion is confirmed
when he observes a small pattern of three moles under Isao's arm, similar
to the moles on Kiyoaki. These three moles become the sign of the
reincarnation of Kiyoaki through his subsequent lives.
I think I mentioned
somewhere here that the idea of reincarnation does not really appeal to
me. My present life has been so satisfying that any other life would be a
disappointment. On the other hand, apart from the child version of Ying
Chan, none of Kiyoaki's subsequent reincarnations were aware of their
previous lives. Therefore it seems to me that in some basic sense, the
idea of reincarnation is quite unnecessary.
Leaving aside such
esoteric thoughts, on another level these novels describe the feeling of
Japan during four completely different periods of the last century. Times
of upheavals, but also times of suffering for the lands neighboring Japan.
Another interpretation might be that the four different characters of the
reincarnations of Kiyoaki represent four aspects of the individual
character of Everyone.
But before describing the
novels individually, here a small rant:
I began to read these
novels of Yukio Mishima by "buying" the first one, Spring Snow,
via Amazon, having it downloaded onto my Kindle. It cost nine euros and
forty nine cents. But then, when clicking into the Wikipedia to learn more
about The Sea of Fertility, I noticed that at the bottom, under
"External Links", there was a link which, when clicked upon, gave a free
download of the entire sequence of all four novels. Investigating further,
I see that the file was offered by the website archive.org. On the other
hand, Amazon was offering the complete series for 35 euros and 48 cents.
What is going on here?
Will the police come in the middle of the night to arrest me on the
instructions of Jeff Bezos, the world's richest man, for failing to pay
him the remaining 25 euros and 99 cents which he seems to expect? And
anyway, what does it mean to "buy" an ebook via Amazon? The money paid
does not buy anything. Instead I have simply paid for the possibility to
read something on my Kindle which belongs to Amazon. At any time, Amazon
could decide to withdraw this ability, and thus all of these books which I
have been describing for the past 5 or 6 years could simply be permanently
erased. Unlike with a real paper book, I do not have the right to lend it
to a friend, or to sell it, or to give it away.
I do understand that in
the case of a living author, this rental fee paid to Amazon does, at least
partially, find its way to the author. But as we have seen, Mishima is
long since dead. And I don't imagine that any possible reincarnation would
benefit from the Amazon fee. One might think of the translator, Edward
. But he is also no more.
Of course publishers
retain copyright even after the deaths of authors. In the case of real,
paper books, I can understand this. The publisher hopes to produce more
books and then sell them at a profit, thus supporting all the people
involved in printing the books, binding them, distributing them, and so
on. And he would like to secure the right to do this without competition
from other publishers for a reasonable time. But what does this have to do
with ebooks? There are essentially no costs at all. Nobody profits except
for Jeff Bezos and perhaps the apparent copyright holders: Alfred A Knopf,
Inc., or perhaps Random House, or perhaps Vintage Books, or some other of
the names which appear at the beginning of the books. They are simply
raking in the money for nothing. Thus I applaud archive.org for breaking
out of this stranglehold of the established publishing industry.
Of course the situation
with academic publishers is much worse and so I decided long ago to ignore
them and instead to simply make the few papers I have written freely
available on my website in the Faculty. They will thus remain obscure and
unknown, reflecting in some degree the philosophy which Honda encountered
Kiyoaki Matsugae is 18
years old. His father is the Marquis Matsugae, an ultra-rich, but
good-natured man. The grandfather was General Matsugae who distinguished
himself in the Russian-Japanese war of 1904-05. Or perhaps it was the
Chinese-Japanese war of 1894-95. The family lives in a huge estate in
Tokyo. We are told that when the Marquis goes to visit his mistress who
isn't allowed to live in the compound, he must walk half a mile from the
main house to the main gate in order to reach the mistress's house just
outside the gate.
But Kiyoaki is not of a
military character (and his father the Marquis isn't either). He goes to
the Peers School for the children of the aristocracy. Yet he finds the
loud, rude members of the kendo (the traditional Japanese bamboo
sword fighting) club at the school to be in all ways repugnant. At least
he is good friends with Shigekuni Honda who, although not himself an
aristocrat, also attends the Peers School, and he comes from a solid
family, his father being a respected judge. There are also two Siamese
(that is to say, of Thailand) Princes: Prince Pattanadid and Prince
Kridsada, who attend the school and who are friends of Kiyoaki and Honda.
Despite the exulted title
of Marquis, Kiyoaki's family is considered to be nouveau-riche.
Thus Kiyoaki, as a small child, spent much time with the family of Count
Ayakura, a family of ancient aristocratic traditions, in order to become
familiar with the forms and traditions of the aristocracy. As with Count
Ayakura himself, Kiyoaki is vague, arrogant, impractical. He lives in a
world of vivid dreams which often seem more real than reality, and which
he records in a diary.
As a child,
Kiyoaki spent much time playing with Satoko, the girl of the Ayakura's who
is a year or two older than Kiyoaki. But now, when he is 18 and she is
about 20, he has the feeling that she is making fun of him. She professes
to be in love, but he thinks she is really just mocking him. He takes his
anger out on Iinuma, a student who has been engaged as Kiyoaki's tutor.
And so Satoko becomes
engaged to Prince Harunori of the Japanese Imperial Family. She is still
in love with Kiyoaki and writes him desperate love letters before becoming
formally engaged to the Prince, but Kiyoaki has thrown them in the
rubbish, unopened. The engagement is a very serious business. Kiyoaki's
father, Marquis Matsugae, unaware that Satoko still loves Kiyoaki,
undertakes to support the whole elaborate, expensive, tradition-filled
engagement process financially, in order to help the Ayakuras.
But then, in his
dream-like state, Kiyoaki suddenly decides that he is now hopelessly in
love with Satoko. This is the degenerate, irresponsible style of the old
Japanese aristocracy. They meet secretly, passionately, on the beach at
the Matsugae's beach-side villa where also Honda and the two Thai princes
are spending a few days. Then a few days later Honda drives Satoko from
Tokyo and then back, to another secret, night-time rendezvous with Kiyoaki
on the beach. She becomes pregnant with Kiyoaki's child. But this is
And so the book ends with
a secret abortion to avoid scandal, Satoko deciding to become a Buddhist
nun in an ancient monastery, and Kiyoaki dying of a broken heart,
bequeathing Honda his diary of dreams.
It is now 1932. Honda is a
judge in Osaka. The Chief Justice is an enthusiastic practitioner of kendo
and there is to be a tournament, with religious overtones, at a shrine
somewhere near Osaka. But he has an appointment in Tokyo which he can't
put off. So he asks Honda to take his place, making a speech and
supervising various ceremonies.
As a student, Honda had
had only disdain for kendo, that aggressive fighting sport. But now, in a
changed world, he is prepared to be part of the ceremony. When sitting on
the tribune he becomes aware of a young man who seems to be a magnificent
picture of splendid youth. Although only 18 years old, he is already a
third dan master of kendo. He is to lead one team in its competition with
the other team. And one after another, he defeats five opponents in a row,
each with a full-blooded, manly shout accompanying the winning stroke.
Honda is impressed.
Later Honda is invited to
climb a sacred mountain, and on the way down, in order to wash off the
persperation, he accompanies his guide, taking off his clothes and bathing
under a sacred waterfall. He finds himself next to that magnificent youth,
and he notices that he has a pattern of three small moles under his arm,
just like his old school friend, Kiyoaki. And then he remembers what
Kiyoaki had said to him before dying: "We shall meet again under the
The young man is Isao
Iinuma, the son of Kiyoaki's former tutor who has now become the head of
some sort of school to promote the ideals of Japanese nationalism. Honda
is fascinated with the idea that Isao might actually be a reincarnation of
Kiyoaki, and he gets to know Isao, having long talks with him, but of
course not telling him of his suspicions. Isao tells him that his favorite
book is a pamphlet entitled, "The League of the Divine Wind". There
follows a long sequence of chapters, being the text of the imagined
pamphlet. The author, Yukio Mishima, was apparently inspired by the Shinpuren
of 1876 when writing this pamphlet into the book.
I found this a bit tedious
to read, and so I skipped through these pamphlet chapters. It has to do
with a group of samurai who were unhappy with the fact that after the
opening of Japan to foreign trade at the beginning of the Meiji period,
many of the old traditions were done away with. As a kind of hopeless
protest, they attacked an army base using traditional Japanese swords,
losing hopelessly, then committing seppuku as a demonstration of their old
way of life. And so this becomes a romantic myth of an imagined earlier
Japan, a land of purity and honor.
Isao contrasts this with
the Japan he sees in 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression. As
everywhere else, there are many bitterly poor people, and yet a small
number of the very rich. He sees these as a poison on society, polluting
Japan, destroying the ancient customs and traditions. And so he assembles
a group of like-minded students who have the aim of emulating the glorious
deeds of the League of the Divine Wind. Each of them has been assigned a
different one of the hated, ultra-rich capitalists, and on an appointed
day they will strike, killing with a traditional Japanese samurai sword
and then committing seppuku.
This is rather like the
Baader-Meinhof gang (the "Red Army Faction"), or the Italian "Red
Brigades" of the 1970s. They also wanted to kill the evil capitalists and
their fawning politicians. But there is a difference, and this was
illustrated in a scene of the novel.
Before the appointed day,
Isao's gang is arrested by the police and they are taken to jail. They
have been betrayed by Isao's father in the hope that that will save him.
The police are very kind, and even admiring of Isao and his goals. He is
soon released and the charges are dropped. But during one session of
questioning, Isao hears a repeated, dull thumping sound in the distance.
At first he thinks it sounds like a bamboo sword striking the leather
armor of a kendo opponent. But then he realizes that a violent bamboo
stroke on leather has a sharper sound. This is the sound of a prisoner
being systematically beaten. The police officer tells Isao with a smile
that it is one of those horrible "reds" which are being tortured. But
Isao, the perfect, beautiful young man, is one of us; not them.
I am reminded of one of
Naipaul's novels, was it "A Bend in the River"? Naipaul explains that in
Africa it is essential for survival to belong to some group, some tribe,
or family. If you are alone, you are lost. This must be a deep and
essential property of the human condition. And this is why the "reds" can
be so hated.
The "Reds": communists,
socialists, say that we are all equal. All of humanity is the same, and
these artificial groupings should be disbanded so that we will become part
of a single, unified communal, utopian whole. This idea may appeal to
people of a certain disposition (despite the fact that it led to the
millions of destroyed lives under communism in the last century), but it
would seem that the majority of people prefer to be inspired by their
heroic national myths, demonstrating their superiority in comparison with
other nations, or races, and so feeling the protection of belonging to a
strong group of people like themselves.
Honda has resigned his
position as judge in Osaka and become a lawyer in order to defend Isao. In
the end, Isao is free, but unsatisfied. He makes his way to the most hated
capitalist of the land with a sword and a dagger, stabbing the fat little
man, then running out into the night and killing himself with the dagger
in a seaside cave. In his fantasy, the author, Yukio Mishima described the
scene in the last sentence of the book: "The instant that the blade tore
open his flesh, the bright disk of the sun soared up and exploded behind
I wonder if poor Mishima
himself had such a pleasant, euphoric, real-life experience?
It is 1940. War is
breaking out everywhere. Honda has become a successful lawyer and he is in
Bangkok, representing a Japanese firm in a law suit against a Thai firm.
During his stay he recalls the two Siamese princes who were his
companions, together with Kiyoaki at the Peers School, and he thinks about
visiting them. But the Thai royal family has fled in exile to Switzerland.
Except that there is one young princess, Ying Chan, who has been declared
to be insane, and she remains, living in one or another of the palaces
under the supervision of some older women. Ying Chan is the daughter of
Honda visits Ying Chan and
she immediately runs to him, telling him tearfully that she is really
Japanese. She is the reincarnation of someone in Japan, and she begs Honda
to take her with him back to her homeland. The next day they all go
happily to a temple on the outskirts of Bangkok. The young, seven year old
Ying Chan takes off all her clothes to go swimming, and Honda observes
again the sign of three small moles under her arm. He asks her a number of
questions about the details of the lives of Kiyoaki and Isao, and she
knows the answers.
But he doesn't take Ying
Chan back to Japan, even if that were to be possible. Instead, since he
successfully won the law suit for the Japanese company, they offer to pay
for a further holiday, and Honda travels to India in order to meditate on
this whole reincarnation business, the meaning of life and death, and
everything else. There follows a collection of obscure chapters in which
Mishima explains to us various points of Indian philosophy, combined with
all of his thoughts about death.
Back in Japan, Honda has
sufficient private wealth in order to spend the war years simply
meditating on life, death, the universe... It becomes 1952. He learns that
Ying Chan has come to Japan as a student. But she knows nothing about
reincarnation. It doesn't interest her and she has no memory of the
nonsense her seven year old self said on the subject back in 1940. But
somehow, Honda must get to the heart of the matter, find what is in her
Honda has become much more
wealthy, profiting from some investments he had nothing particularly to do
with. He builds a large house with a spacious garden in a summer resort
out in the country. His neighbor, Keiko, is a sophisticated woman, also in
her 50s, and he gets to know her well. His wife doesn't really like the
new house, preferring the old house in Tokyo. They remain childless.
This new wealth and
perhaps all the esoteric philosophy have led to a decline in Honda's
morals. He is a voyeur, going secretly in the darkness of the night to the
, hiding behind trees, watching couples on the grass having
sex. And in his new house he has a peephole in the wall from his study to
the bedroom on the other side. In order to explore the character of Ying
Chan more deeply, he arranges for her to sleep in the bedroom, and Keiko
has organized a nephew to come and try to have sex with her. But Ying Chan
throws him out and flees in the night to Keiko's house. Finally, at a
later party, Honda has success with his peephole, observing passionate sex
between Ying Chan and Keiko.
What is this supposed to
mean? The degeneration of morality in post-war Japan? Or more to the
point, Mishima is describing his basic philosophy; namely that life is
best when you are young and vigorous. If you hang on to life after that
you will become old and degenerate, a hateful, disgusting object. It is
best to commit suicide before that happens.
And so, perhaps happily
for Ying Chan, she returns to Thailand, is bitten by a poisonous snake and
dies at the age of 20 while Honda lives on into the next book and old age.
This book seems shorter
than the other three. It is 1968. Honda is an old man, approaching 80. His
wife has died and he spends much time with Keiko. Two wealthy, ancient
people in a young world of flower power and hippies.
After an evening together
they go to the beach near Shimizu and notice a raised building for
observing the ships coming and going from the harbor. Looking in, they
find the 16 year old Tōru Yasunaga. We have already learned quite a bit
about him. He is an orphan; he is often visited by a strange young woman;
he works through the night, observing ship movements through a telescope,
keeping records, telephoning to the docks.
Honda and Keiko are in
their elegant evening dress, and Tōru wonders what they want, visiting him
like this in his station. He finds Keiko repulsive, but helps her to take
a book down from a shelf, raising his arm and exposing the pattern of
three small moles. Is this the next reincarnation of Kiyoaki?
Honda, who is childless,
resolves to adopt Tōru. And so Tōru, a self-confident but poor young man,
is adopted into the house of a rich old man with the prospect of
inheriting everything upon his death. What better recipe is there for
corruption? And Honda himself becomes more corrupt, resuming his Peeping
Tom activities, being caught by the police, and the scandal reported in
the papers. Thus the situation with Tōru runs out of control, he even hits
Honda with a poker from the fireplace.
Keiko then has a talk with
Tōru, explaining the reason Honda has adopted him, this whole
reincarnation business. She also explains that the defining attributes of
these reincarnations are the three moles and the fact that they each die
at the age of 20. Then, for some reason which was unclear to me (I was
beginning to tire of reading about all this), Tōru decides to kill
himself. He takes a poison which his girlfriend has given him, but it is
only methanol so that he survives, blinded, in a wheelchair, ever more
bitter with himself and the world.
In the end, the ever
weaker Honda resolves to go to the convent in the mountains where Satoko
is the abbess. As with Kiyoaki all those years ago, he refuses to take a
taxi (or rickshaw) all the way up the mountain, and walks - or rather
staggers - the last few hundred meters. The saint-like Satoko eventually
sees him; he blurts out the whole story of Kiyoaki's reincarnations while
Satoko listens in peaceful silence. After Honda has finished, Satoko
calmly tells him that she never knew this Kiyoaki Matsugae. Honda
protests. There are written records, histories which prove that he
She says, "Such documents
might solve problems in the other world. But do you really know a person
She claps her hands and a
novice leads them to a room where they can contemplate the garden of the
convent and the mystery of Satoko's seemingly senseless words.
And thus the book ends,
finally allowing Yukio Mishima to meet his, personal end.
We are left with the title
of the whole: "The Sea of Fertility". What does it have to do with a story
beginning with an abortion and continuing on, describing a barren man and
his fantasies of death?
George Washington Black is, at first, a young boy, a
slave, on a plantation in Barbados. The master is an old man and the
conditions are dreadful, but not totally unbearable. The old man dies and
eventually the two sons of the English family owning the plantation
arrive. The eldest son is horrible. The worst sort of people are appointed
as overseers. The slaves are tortured, maimed, killed. They begin to
commit suicide with the idea that their souls will be reborn in the lost
paradise of Africa. But the brother puts an end to that by chopping off
the head of the corpse of one of the suicides, sticking it on a pole, and
telling the slaves that the soul cannot be reborn without its head.
All of this makes very
unpleasant reading. Undoubtedly there were such horrible things. But it
would hardly be in the interests of the owner of the plantation to treat
his slaves like this. Within a very short time the plantation would have
And I wonder whether the
first generation slaves which still had a memory of Africa considered that
to be a paradise. After all, they were slaves in Africa, either captured
by raiding parties from enemy tribes, or else born into the slave class.
Then they were sold by African slave traders to the European slave traders
on the coast, to be shipped across to the Americas on the dreaded "Middle
Passage". Were the Europeans, and the eventual plantation owners, more
brutal than the African slave holders? Perhaps. In any case the author's
ancestry apparently was free of such experiences, since her parents
immigrated to Canada from Ghana.
But to return to the book.
The younger brother of the plantation owner family, Titch, was an
abolitionist. A scientist. An inventor. And he decided to take on
Washington Black to be his assistant. He taught him reading and writing,
and also drawing so that he could draw specimens. He constructed a
hydrogen-filled balloon, and during a dramatic nighttime storm, they were
both carried away in the balloon to eventually crash into the rigging of a
Thus Washington Black
became an escaped slave, and Titch a criminal who had stolen the property
of his brother. But the year is 1830, and happily slavery was abolished
throughout the British Empire in 1834.
Both fled, via a short
stay in the southern slave states of the United States, to the ice and
snow of northern Canada where Titch's father was a scientist, studying
something there, becoming also a good friend of Washington. But eventually
Titch wandered off by himself in a snow storm, leaving Washington at the
camp. The father dies. Washington moves to the coast at Newfoundland,
meets a famous English biologist, falls in love with his daughter; they
move to London and set up a marine museum. Finally he, together with his
girlfriend, travel to Morocco where they find Titch camping in the desert,
and some questions about his motivations are resolved.
It became a nice,
lighthearted adventure story. Nothing serious. I wondered if the author
was thinking of that book by Olaudah
when writing this one.
As I have learned, there is nothing professors of
literature find to be more offensive than The
. Of course this is concerned with William
Shakeapeare. Did he write all those plays, or didn't he? If you google the
words "the authorship question" then only links to Shakespeare come up.
Nobody questions other authorships. Obviously Dickens wrote Dickens;
Hemingway wrote Hemingway; Samuel Clemens wrote Mark Twain; Sophocles
wrote Sophocles. So why didn't Shakespeare write Shakespeare?
The science is settled say
those professors. If you don't believe Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare then
you are a cooky conspiracy theorist who also believes the Earth isn't
warming, Lee Harvey Oswald didn't murder JFK, and 911 wasn't the sole
responsibility of the 19 terrorists.
I suppose they want to get
on with what is actually written in the plays and the sonnets. Examine the
characters of the plays, the motives, the background of Elizabethan
England. This is the stuff of Ph.D. theses. All of those conspiracy
theorists simply get in the way of them doing their jobs.
But when I read a book, I
want to look at a picture of the author. I want to know something about
him or her. What was the motivation for writing the book? If I know
nothing about the author then who knows what is behind it? Some anonymous
committee, or perhaps even an inhuman artificial intelligence with no real
feelings at all. Who knows?
In the case of
Shakespeare, if William Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon was indeed the
author, then, given the few things that are actually known about his life,
which seem so unpleasant and degrading, then, at least for me, I would be
put off, thinking about entering the mind of such a man. But happily, for
anyone who is prepared to delve into the authorship question, it becomes
obvious that this William Shakespeare could not have been the author.
Surely the best debunking
of the Stratford Shakespeare was given by Mark Twain in his Is
Shakespeare Dead? Look at the semi-literate epitaph on the tombstone
on the supposed grave of William Shakespeare of Stratford on Avon. Look at
his testament. Not a single book is mentioned in the list of his
possessions. The will is not in his hand, although there is some sort of
signature. His wife and daughter were unable to sign with anything other
than an illiterate X. Mark Twain remarks that although no one would
compare him to Shakespeare, still, even in his life, the town of Hannibal
Missouri where he was raised celebrated his life and works with monuments
and celebrations. And even now, Hannibal still remembers Mark Twain. How
curious then that when, 50 or 60 years after the supposed death of William
Shakespeare, the greatest, most famous poet and playwright of his day, the
first of his admirers ventured out into the wilds of Stratford on Avon to
pay their respects, none of the natives had heard of him!
This book describes
clearly the few facts which are actually known, and describes in great
detail the supposed facts which the professors of literature cite, using
such expressions as: "we may suppose", "seemingly", "we can imagine", "it
may be assumed", and so forth. All of this described in great, scholarly
The standard candidates
for the Authorship seem to be: Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, Frances
Bacon, and Christopher Marlowe. After reading Mark Twain's book, I had
thought that perhaps the name "Shake-Speare" might have been a pseudonym
adopted by a group of these possible authors for some reason or another in
order to avoid associating their highly placed names with the London
public stage. Mark Twain sensibly avoided settling on any one possible
author, a subject of mere speculation. Instead he showed how preposterous
was the idea of William Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon as the author.
I was surprised to see
that Robin P. Williams thinks that the two long poems attributed to
William Shakespeare, Venus and Adonis, and The Rape of Lucrece,
were actually written by the Stratford actor. Perhaps she is right. After
all, he was an actor, and so he could not have been totally illiterate.
One or two times I have started reading them, but soon got bogged down
with the boring details and gave up. As she writes, these books of poetry
were quite successful when they were first published in 1593-4, going on
through further editions. And they were more popular than the Shakespeare
plays, despite the fact that the style is totally different from all else
attributed to "Shakespeare". Indeed, the historical Shakespearean plays
which were performed before 1593 were not attributed to Shakespeare at
Many people have
concentrated on the Sonnets. What are they about? What do they mean? Was
Shakespeare secretly homosexual? How wonderful! Everybody seems to want to
be a homosexual these days.
And then there are the
great theories. For example I spent some time clicking through this
, which claims to have found the HIDDEN SECRETS of the
Sonnets. But after a while it seemed to become more and more far-fetched.
Then we have the theory
that Edward de Vere impregnated Queen Elizabeth who then secretly had a
baby boy, and the Sonnets are about that. Well. Ok...
This book gives a completely different theory which, at
least for me, totally makes sense. It is that Mary
Sidney, the Countess of Pembroke, was the author. I had never really
heard of her before. (A later Countess of Pembroke was a student of the
viola da gamba, generations later, and that great virtuoso, Carl Friedrich
Abel, wrote some simple sonatas for her which I try to play.) You can read
about the Shakespearean Countess at the website of the Mary
Sidney Society, and of course in this book. There is much more than
can be described here in this already overly long review. It is a
fascinating and convincing theory which provides me with a real human being
behind all those plays, making them come alive.
Fire, by Kamila Shamsie
According to the blurb,
this book is based on the ancient Greek play Antigone
by Sophocles. There, the sister of the disgraced son seeks to bury him
honorably, thus facing dreadful consequences. Here the story is
transported into modern times. It all has to do with Moslems living in
Aneeka is the sister and
Parvais is the brother. They are twins of Pakistani descent, but are
British, having been born in London where the family was not particularly
well off. They have been orphaned after their mother died; the father left
to fight in Chechnya, or Bosnia, or something, back then, 16 or 18 years
ago. A freedom fighter, or an Islamic terrorist, according to ones point
of view. He was tortured to death in Bagram in Afghanistan, presumably
under the supervision of British and American special forces. And so the
twins were brought up by the elder sister. They are not really told very
much about their father.
An up and coming
politician in England, himself a Moslem of Pakistani descent, has just
become Home Secretary. (That is to say, the Interior Minister of Great
Britain.) He says that those who come to live in England should embrace
their new land. They should integrate, not set themselves apart with silly
displays of Islamic folklore, absurd costumes and what have you.
The author equates him
with the evil King Creon of Sophocles' play. This seems to me to be
After all, I have twice
emigrated to live in new countries, and both times I have tried to become
part of the culture, appreciating what is positive and criticizing the
negative. Who am I to set myself off apart from the society in which I
live, pretending that I am of a different, superior culture to the people
I remember the cleaning
lady at the hall of residence where I was at the Australian National
University. She had immigrated to Australia with her family from Serbia,
or Croatia, or something, 20 years before that. I tried to talk with her,
but she could hardly speak three words of English. What was the reason for
such speechlessness? Probably not arrogance. Just laziness, going back to
her husband each day and shutting the outside world away after finishing
her vacuuming. She must have been extremely lonely.
Here in Germany there is a
large Turkish community. They don't seem to be lonely. Again, many of the
women are unable to speak German. They live apart from the rest of society
and so I suppose their children who have grown up here are torn between
the two cultures. Germans tolerate, even embrace this, and accuse anyone
who insists that migrants should integrate into the rest of society of
being a Nazi. This is a symptom of German national guilt.
In the book, Aneeka, who
is just 18 or 20, meets Eamonn, the son of the Home Secretary. He is also
just as young. But whereas she is diligently studying law, he is just
hanging about, living in his own luxurious apartment, paid for by the rich
family, thinking vaguely about what to do. We learn that Aneeka's brother
Parvais has traveled to Syria to join the Islamic Isis. He was recruited
by another Islamic type in London who tells him lots of imaginary tales of
the heroic martyred father.
But in Syria, Parvais is
confronted with brutal reality. He wants to return home. And so Aneeka
seduces the son of the Home Secretary in the hope that he will convince
his father to allow Parvais to return.
We are treated to long
descriptions of the seduction, how Aneeka moves in with Eamonn in his
apartment, and during weeks of intense sex she gets him to want to marry
her. There is a strange kind of eroticism here. How Aneeka prays in the
morning towards Mecca in full Islamic regalia, then in one smooth motion
she discards one garment after the other, finally embracing Eamonn, naked,
except for the head covering. The reviewers of the book - which, after
all, was long-listed for the Booker Prize - apparently were not offended.
Perhaps the fact that the author is a Moslem woman allows all of this to
be politically correct.
In the end, Parvais is
shot dead outside the British Embassy in Istanbul, The Home Secretary does
not allow the body to be returned to British soil. Instead it is sent to
Pakistan, followed by Aneeka, and we are left with a few absurd scenes of
Sophoclean tragedy, magnified and adopted to the hectic, action-jarred
tastes of 21st century readers. The ending spoiled an otherwise good read.
What can I say about this book? It's been a couple of
weeks since I read it and I have forgotten most of what it was about. So
for me it was a forgettable book.
Although, according to
what we learn in Lisa Gray's homepage, she is a Scott and was
the "Press Association's Chief Scottish Football Writer", this book is a
crime story, taking place not in Scotland, but rather in Los Angles.
The plot, from what I remember of it, involves a woman private detective
investigating a murder and kidnapping which happened 20 or 25 years ago.
There are dangerous people who want to get rid of her. In fact she
herself was the child who was kidnapped, or perhaps just taken away to a
safer place. Writing these few words brings more of the plot back to my
memory. It was an enjoyable, quick read. Not quite as brutal as Raymond
This is a retelling of the story of the Iliad in a
simpleminded way for people like me. I did read the original (in English
translation, of course) some years ago, but I found it to be extremely
long and... well... rather boring. Long lists of tedious battles between
one heroic figure and another, governed by the various gods, replete with
long descriptions of the bloody injuries received. I suppose it does
center on Achilles. But one feels that during most of the Iliad he is
simply sitting in his boat, sulking about his injured pride after
Agamemnon has taken the Trojan woman Briseis away from him.
The story of this book
paints a much broader picture. More the feminine point of view rather than
the brutal Ancient Greek macho story. We have the tender story of the
young Achilles growing up together with his boyfriend and lover Patroclus.
Achilles mother, the sea-goddess Thetis, sees to it that her lovely boy is
hidden on an obscure island in order to save him from the slaughter of the
Trojan War. But he is discovered by the wily Odysseus and is brought,
together with Patroclus, to Troy to fight. We read little of the slaughter
of the Iliad. Everything is narrated by Patroclus who becomes a peaceful,
loving medic, attending to the injuries of his fellow Greeks. While both
Patroclus and Achilles, as homosexuals, find women, and especially women's
bodies, to be repulsive, still Patroclus finds affection for the loving,
captured Briseis. Achilles ignores her totally. We are vaguely told that
he leaves the embraces of Patroclus in the mornings to go out and perform
his god-like wonders on the field of battle, but avoiding killing Hector,
owing to the prophesy that Achilles will die when Hector is killed.
All of this seemed so
distant from the brutal Iliad that I wondered if it was all just a silly
fantasy of the author. But no! In the Acknowledgments section at the end
of the book the author lists all of the countless academics who have given
her their authoritative advice on the details of ancient Greek literature.
And indeed, I find that there was a sort of prequel to the Iliad, namely
, a lost
epic poem which tells the story which Madeline Miller is telling us here.
The story is known only in disjointed fragments. Perhaps it can be pieced
together on the basis of some remarks in the few ancient Greek plays which
have survived, together with other writings.
But given that the story
is full of imaginary gods with Superman-like attributes, acting like real
people - the accepted literary form of ancient Greece - it becomes, for
me, nothing more than a fantasy novel lacking the elements of reality
which make these stories interesting.