This year (2021)
Previous years: 2020;
Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead
Upon a River
Left of Me is Yours
Thing of Darkness
Robert Kennedy, Jr.:
Temple of the Golden Pavilion
The Frolic of the Beasts
Thirst for Love
I Never Told You
Weather in Tokyo
Story of the Stone: Volume 1
of the Runes
Clyde N. Wilson:
of Sea Women
Thought They Were Free
with the Angel
the End of the Matinee
Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane
Jay Rubin (Editor):
Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories
There's No Such Thing as an Easy Job
Herma & Screenplay
Miss Webster and Cherif
James Miranda Barry
The Last Gift
Peter R Breggin MD & Ginger Ross Breggin:
and the Global Predators
Before the 19th century it seems that nobody had
any real idea about the weather. Sometimes it was a sunny day and at other
times it was stormy. Of course it was clear that the seasons changed due to
the tilt of the earth traveling around the sun. But, according to the book,
the day to day changes in the weather were either unknown or else attributed
to the influence of the divine. At least people did have barometers in the
18th century, and they knew that high pressure gives good weather and low
pressure is bad.
Then somebody had the idea of finding out what the
weather was like on a particular day, and time of day, at different places
when a great storm had occurred. And it was found that the storm had winds
in a large, circular system. But then, of course, localized thunderstorms or
squalls at sea are not circular storms. And somebody else had the idea that
water vapor tends to rise; it is less dense than dry air. This produces some
sort of circulation. Thus we have two different phenomena, discovered by two
different people, who subsequently engaged in a decades long quarrel in
various scholarly forums about which of the two things is most important.
Only later was it recognized how the one thing causes the other in
conjunction with the Coriolis force resulting from the earth's rotation, and
that also high pressure zones rotate in the opposite direction to stormy low
The ability to quickly gather information about local
weather at widely spaced sites came about through the invention of the
telegraph. Peter Moore devotes many pages to describing this process. As an
Englishman, he confines himself almost exclusively to a few of the stories
of his own countrymen, and occasionally a few developments in the United
States. But if he had taken the trouble to examine the appropriate Wikipedia article he would have been able
to give a much more interesting and comprehensive account of the whole
business. But most of the book is devoted to describing the life and times
FitzRoy, who was the captain of the Beagle on the famous voyage around
the world with Charles Darwin in the years from 1831 to 1836.
So what was Robert FitzRoy's weather experiment?
After a distinguished life in the British Navy,
navigating and mapping dangerous passages, FitzRoy became known as a
practical expert in the observation of weather. It was his idea to publish
in the daily newspapers each day a weather map and forecast of the weather
for the next day. (The word "forecast" in this connection was also his
invention, in order to confound those people who said that his predictions
were not based on "exact science", but rather only on the intuitions he had
gathered from his naval experiences.) But after a few years, with many
erroneous forecasts, the "serious" scientists of the day gained the upper
hand, saying that FitzRoy's forecasts was mere hocus-pocus, not based on
scientific theory, and they were banned from the newspapers. Thus FitzRoy
fell into a depression, ending his life by slitting his own throat. Perhaps
his state of mind was made worse by the fact that he was obsessed with
religion, believing everything in the Bible to be literally true. For
example, during the voyage of the Beagle he told Darwin that the reason
dinosaurs are now extinct is that they were too big to fit through the door
of Noah's Ark. Since FitzRoy also had a very bad temper, Darwin refrained
from pursuing the argument further.
Then the book goes on to describe the ballooning
adventures of James
Glaisher, with his meteorological experiments. One day, losing control
of the gas release valve, the balloon soared up to perhaps 35,000 feet, yet
Glaisher and his pilot, Henry Coxwell, survived unharmed.
And finally - inevitably - a few words are devoted to the
political correctness of "climate change".
This is a story about the evils of killing animals,
astrology, vegetarianism, living alone all year round on a Polish plateau in
a holiday house surrounded by hunters, people being murdered. Much is made
of the English poet, William Blake. The protagonist is a Polish woman who
hates her own name, and so she thinks of the people in her life in terms of
imagined names: "Big Foot", "Oddball", "Dizzy", "Good News". She tells us
that she used to be an engineer, having constructed bridges in Iraq. (What
was she doing there?) Now she teaches English on Wednesdays to a class of
grade school children. She likes them, but finds that children become
repulsive when they become older.
At the end we finally understand what she means when she
goes on and on about her "little girls", and about the mysterious and
bizarre ways in which the hunters are murdered. It is a strange book; is it
a protest about modern Poland, or about modern life in general?
For an admirer of Anthony Trollope this book comes
as somewhat of a shock. The manuscript was discovered by his son after his
father had died, and in it, Trollope wrote that the son was free to publish
it if he thought it worthwhile, but if so then without any changes or other
To begin with, Trollope tells us that his childhood was
extremely difficult, owing to the fact that his father, who was a lawyer,
decided to become a farmer, thus ruining himself and his family. The farm
was next to the snobbish Harrow school, and young Anthony was sent there and
admitted on the basis of charity, trudging every day through the dust and
mud with his worn out clothes, to be laughed at, beaten, made a fool of by
all the other boys and the teachers. Things improved when his mother, at the
age of 50, after an unsuccessful stay in America, wrote a book which sold
well. And he tells us that his mother then kept on writing more books in the
26 years until she was 76, at which time she had written and had published
114 volumes! Thus the family was - more or less - saved.
Anthony Trollope himself was not quite able to equal this
prodigious output, since he only wrote 47 novels, plus various travel books,
historical writings, and short stories. Still, he tells us how he was able
to write so much despite the fact that he was working full-time for the
British Post Office. (But we are also told that the office hours for common
clerks back then in the 1850s were from 10 in the morning till 4 in the
afternoon, with a generous lunch hour, leaving lots of time for other
amusements.) His system was to get up at 5:30 every morning and write for
three hours non-stop, after which he had breakfast. During that time he had
a pocket watch on his writing table and raced against the clock, writing at
a steady rate of 250 words each 15 minutes. That is, 16 and 2/3 words per
minute. With no revisions. Thus we see that the words flowed out of him like
sausages being extruded from a sausage machine.
He then tells us in great detail how much money he earned
with each book, giving a table showing the exact earnings for each book, and
a grand life total of £68,939 17s 5d. Using the inflation calculator of the
Bank of England, we see that this is equated to about £8,250,000 in our
modern, devalued money. (Less than people like Steven King or J.K. Rowling
get, but maybe comparable to Ian McEwan.)
Despite all this, his books are wonderful to read.
Admittedly, after these facts became known to the world, the critics of
Victorian England revised their opinion of the author. How can we take
seriously words produced at the continuous rate of 16 and 2/3 per minute -
that is to say one word every 3.6 seconds? And then to tell us in exact
detail how much money it all produced. Is this the behavior of a gentleman?
Only later, in the 20th century, did Trollope's reputation again increase,
and today he is much admired.
Perhaps we can compare him to Mozart who also wrote
everything in one quick, smooth session with no revisions. Many people find
the music of Mozart to be of divine inspiration. In contrast we have the
modern composer of "classical" music who spends years trying to write a
single piece of music, crossing everything out, starting again and again,
philosophizing, explaining, suffering. The product in the end is a horrible,
disjointed, disharmonious chaos which concertgoers must endure, or else they
quickly leave before the performance begins. Or again... Think of some of
the modern novels which have won the Booker Prize - and which are
Finally I must remark on one phrase which struck me when
reading the book. Trollope and his wife are in the process of selling their
house near London and setting off on an extended visit to Australia and New
Zealand with the purpose of visiting their younger son who has a sheep
station in Australia. He writes "I and my wife" - and so on.
What an awkward phrase! Well, OK, he must have written it
in about 12 seconds and then gone on steadily with the rest of the sentence
without further thought. We are told - for example in his entry in the
Wikipedia - that he had a loving, happy marriage. Still, in this book he
comes across as being rather more egotistical than that which we would
usually expect in an autobiography. At least we can hope that if he had
taken the trouble to revise the manuscript then he would have crossed out
this phrase and substituted the more usual "my wife and I".
Orley Farm, by Anthony Trollope
A young woman, Lady Mason, had married an old man,
Joseph Mason, who quickly died, leaving the widow in her early 20s with a
baby boy and a small income out of the inheritance for herself, but nothing
for her son. The man had had extensive properties which he gave to his
older, grownup son, the product of an earlier marriage. At the time of his
death, Joseph Mason was living at Orley Farm, not far from London, and the
elder son lived on another property in Yorkshire. Lady Mason had pleaded
with her dying husband to leave something for her son, but he had simply
said "The brat gets nothing".
And so in the night after the death, Lady Mason forged a
codicil to the will, together with three forged signatures, giving Orley
Farm to her son. The will was contested, it was tried in a court of law, and
she won the case. But the older son felt that he was cheated out of his
rightful property, and his hatred for Lady Mason grew ever stronger.
It is now 20 years later. Lady Mason's son has grown up
and taken possession of Orley Farm. New evidence comes to light. The older
son is rich, but he is a horrible miser. He schemes, hopes and prays that he
can make Lady Mason pay for all that she has done to him, satisfying his
lust for revenge. She should be thrown into some horrible prison. And this
leads to a new legal case in a court of law where Lady Mason is accused of
perjury, not forgery. Lots of dramatic developments. And many other episodes
with various young people in the story falling in love with one another. Of
all the novels he wrote, this one was Trollope's favorite. And I would
almost agree with him.
I downloaded it from Project Gutenberg - the version with
the illustrations which accompanied the first edition. But this was rather
disconcerting. In the text we have descriptions of young ladies described as
being flawlessly perfect, elegant, stepping lightly about the place. And
then we are confronted with bizarre illustrations of the various scenes. The
young ladies have small heads, and then huge, bloated, balloon-like masses
of clothing which obscure everything else. It is as if they would suddenly
float up into the air like hot air balloons. Or at least fall over on top of
such a ridiculous mass of material. Was this absurd fashion really the usual
clothing of those days in the 1870s? In period movies, say the filming of
various Jane Austen novels by the BBC, or in the video series Downton Abbey,
depicting life in the 1910s and 20s, the women wear comfortable, very
elegant and beautiful dresses.
This book is concerned with the leader of the Great Reset
of 1933 in Germany. The Great Reset of 1917 in Russia only gradually
produced a similarly totalitarian leader. Can we hope that the Great Reset
of 2020, which has been imposed nearly throughout the whole world, will end
in a more peaceful way than these two earlier Great Resets? All of these
Great Resets have been executed in the name of Socialism - that is to say
the greatest possible control of the people by a ruling class. The means
used in the Great Reset of 1933 was the Gestapo; that of 1917 the NKVD; and
the embryonic means proposed for the Great Reset of 2020 is the compulsory
introduction of total electronic surveillance.
When this book was first published in 1977 it was highly
praised, for example in The Times Literary Supplement. The subject of the
book is not a general history of the Second World War, or a history of the
brutality and outrages which accompanied that war. Instead it is concerned
with the person and actions of Adolf Hitler as he was described in the many
personal journals and diaries of the people in his inner circle. Most of
these sources had been ignored by historians up till then.
Of course Hitler is considered to be the very
personification of Evil, The Devil, Lucifer. Thus in order to criticize
Donald Trump people have said that he "is" Hitler. What absurd nonsense!
The figure of Hitler has become the Disneyland vision of
villainy, iniquity. The endpoint of evilness. And David Irving, having the
audacity to write this book on such a subject, has himself become subjected
to a campaign of hatred. His Wikipedia article describes him as being a
"Holocaust denier", despite the fact that he does not deny that millions of
people of Jewish descent, as well as many of the Slavic peoples, were
systematically murdered by the Nazis, inspired by the hatred and demagogy of
Irving tells us that he was unable to find amid all the
writings and official papers that he reviewed any direct orders from Hitler
ordering the mass murder of the Jews. He makes a point of this, although it
seems to be a mute point. After all, in countless scenes throughout the book
we see Hitler talking about the "Jewish problem" and its solution. They are
to be gotten rid of. Shipped away "to the East", whatever that was supposed
to mean. It is obvious that everybody around Hitler knew what this euphemism
referred to. And in the last chapter of the book, in the bunker just before
he commits suicide, we see Hitler opening his personal safe and removing all
the incriminating papers, to be burned along with all the rest of the debris
of bombed out Berlin.
I can't understand why David Irving made so much of this
point. But he did do it, and now, since the real Hitler is dead, David
Irving is himself portrayed as a "Hitler". And it is no joke. He was thrown
into a jail in Austria for a year. As a reaction to all this, and perhaps to
provoke his enemies, he began making outrageous statements on one thing and
another, as if he himself sympathizes with what was the Nazi cause. And as a
consequence he lost practically everything, becoming bankrupt, and he
ended up dealing in Nazi memorabilia, attesting the authenticity of such
things with his signature. A sad end. But all of this has nothing to do with
What was Hitler's vision of the world? We learn that as a
young man, Hitler listened to the Wagner opera, Rienzi, and the experience
electrified him. Did this inspire his vision?
His vision was that after his victory, the world would be
divided between England and Germany. Germany was to be satisfied with
continental Europe, and England was to have the oceans of the world, and all
the rest. The African and Asian countries with their primitive, dark,
inferior people were to belong to England. One problem for him was that
those Slavic peoples were also primitive, half-human brutes who,
unfortunately, lived in the eastern part of Europe. And so they were also to
be gotten rid of as far as possible - to the "East" - and the remaining
dregs were to be left uneducated, except to the extent of being able to read
street signs, and thus to be able to carry out their menial tasks for their
German masters. Thus the flowering plains of eastern Europe were to be
occupied by the superior master race of the Germans. Of course everything
was to be freed of all Jews, as Hitler emphasized constantly in repetitive
rants. Western and southern Europe was, indeed, occupied by those
irresponsible Latin types, but they were to be tolerated, I suppose as an
amusement for the superior Master Race. But indeed, Hitler admired the
English as being also a Master Race. This comes across again and again in
the diaries and journals of his inner circle. And he was completely
frustrated by the fact that England did not understand that he wanted to
have peace with the English, to accept them as being the joint masters of
the world. He could only explain this failure in terms of the Jews who he
thought were controlling the politics of England. The vast majority of the
English, the non-Jewish population, would be only too willing to join
Germany if they were to be freed of the evil influence of the Jews.
It seems incredible that a whole nation followed these
wild and bizarre ideas to a final destruction. Such is the power of a Great
Reset. A message is repeated - and enforced - until it becomes
unquestioned truth. A half understood and half told truth. A "truth"
which when looked at from a distance is seen to be absurd, monstrous.
The time of this book is the 1860s or 70s, the time of
Anthony Trollope. It is a kind of fantasy story which takes place on the
upper reaches of the Thames River, upstream from Oxford, around the village,
or rather the one or two houses, of Radcot, together with its bridge. In particular most of the action takes place
at Ye Olde Swan,
which still seems to be the major attraction of Radcot. Hopefully such an
old pub with its ancient history will survive this Great Reset. But
thankfully for the characters in this story - in the Victorian age - the
upheavals of today were far in the future.
Looking at the map we see that Radcot is just a day's
walk from the source of the Thames, yet it is astonishing how wide the river
is by the time it reaches Radcot. And at London it is very wide, almost
comparable to the Rhine. But of course this is due to the fact that the
Thames at London is a tidal estuary - an arm of the ocean. In fact we learn
in this book that the word "ocean" stems from the ancient Greek word for
"river". When passing through the Pillars of Hercules from the Mediterranean
into the Atlantic, the ancients apparently believed that they had discovered
the mother of all rivers. Somehow I find this to be as fanciful as the rest
of the book.
During a stormy winter night the drinkers at the Swan (it
was certainly not called Ye Olde Swan back in Trollope's day) are startled
by a dark, staggering figure coming through the door and collapsing on the
floor. A small dead girl with the waxy appearance of a puppet falls from his
hands and is caught by one of the drinkers. The man is bleeding heavily from
injuries to his face and perhaps other places, but he seems to be still
breathing. The nurse is summoned from a nearby house. (The local doctor is
hopeless and is thus avoided by all sensible people.) She revives the man
and then has a look at the dead girl who has been placed in a freezing shed
out the back. But suddenly she finds that the girl is alive.
Where does the girl come from? Who is she? Could it be
that she is the little girl who was abducted out of her bedroom two years
ago, perhaps by the maid? Or could it be that she is the illegitimate child
of the son of the mixed-race farmer? (His father was an Earl and the mother
a maid of African ancestry. The farmer was educated in the finest schools,
and then his aristocratic father bought the farm for him.) And so the
revived little girl, who remains speechless and enigmatic, is first taken in
to the family which had been destroyed by the loss of their baby daughter,
thus making the mother happy, but the father skeptical. Then after various
dramatic developments the girl is taken over by the family of the farmer.
Finally she mysteriously disappears back into the upper reaches of the
Thames during the next winter solstice, one year later. The family who first
claimed the girl, during the euphoria of thinking that they had regained
their lost daughter, managed to create a new baby, so that was okay. The
farmer had to recognize the evil of his eldest son who had been procreated
by the rape of the daughter of a neighbor by one of his farmhands. Thus the
son was pure English and pure evil. The farmer had then married the ravished
daughter. And finally the man who had staggered into the Swan in the first
place turned out to be a photographer, and he and the nurse fell hopelessly
in love with one another. The nurse who had delivered countless babies,
seeing all the blood, pain and mess of a birth, had decided to always remain
single and never to have a baby. Nevertheless, in the end, they do it.
I imagine the author meditating in some secluded Oxford
cloister on the mysteries of the Upper Thames as it flows by. This is
certainly not a book Anthony Trollope would have written. It is filled with
the nice politically correct nuances of today.
A beautifully written story about a dark subject which
takes place in Japan. I enjoy reading these stories about Japan. There was
recently a most interesting essay, showing that Japan is not, and never was, a
"westernized" country. Japan will go its own way. The author is obviously
not Japanese, yet the book does seem to have the flavor of the country.
It is loosely based on a true story. We have an unhappily
married couple with a young daughter. The husband is an unpleasant person
and he wants a divorce. It is explained that in Japan, joint custody of
children after a divorce is exclusively forbidden. Thus each of the parents
try to show that the other was guilty of as much as possible. In the case at
hand, the husband was not particularly interested in keeping his daughter,
but he wanted to use the possibility for extracting as much money as
possible from his wife's family. For this purpose he went to an agency
specializing in such things. They employed men whose job it was to approach
the wife, get her to fall in love with the agent, and then have them
photographed in compromising positions for presentation to the divorce
courts. I suppose there are also women agents for getting rid of husbands as
In the present case, the man who has been assigned to the
wife, despite the fact that he has had long experience in this field, makes
the mistake of falling hopelessly in love with her. And of course the wife
is hopelessly in love with him. The man does not tell the wife about his
role as a professional "lover". After all, how could he tell her such a
thing? The divorce goes ahead; the husband gaining much money from the
wife's family. He is kept from telling the wife about the true nature of her
lover with the threat that if he were to do so, then all of his shady and
evil dealings will be exposed.
But in a somewhat drunken state, the old husband does
come to the wife and tells her everything. She is shocked. Later her lover
returns home. Dreadful scenes, and in the end, he strangulates her.
All of this is related by the daughter who has grown up
with her grandfather, the father of the wife. The grandfather has never told
his granddaughter the true situation. He told her that her mother had died
in a traffic accident. But now it is 20 years later. She has become
qualified as a lawyer, following her grandfather who was a distinguished
lawyer. And she wants to find out what happened. All of this leads to much
soul-searching and a confrontation with the grandfather. He had tried to do
everything to have the murderer of his daughter executed. (Capital
punishment by hanging is still practiced in Japan.) But it turns out that
there was "only" a sentence of 20 years in prison.
This led me to think about the conditions in the prisons of Japan. What a nightmare! I was unable to
sleep after reading about this.
This is a novel about Robert Fitzroy, the captain of the
Beagle in its voyage around the world with Charles Darwin. It's a long but
enjoyable read. I assume the author read both Fitzroy's and Darwin's
journals of the voyage, as well as those of the other officers, many of whom
went on to have very distinguished careers, as well as other sources -
letters, diaries, and so forth - from the rest of Fitzroy's life. The
picture we have is of Robert Fitzroy, aristocratic, religious, correct,
responsible, always seeking to do the right thing. At his own personal
expense he hires ships and people in order to complete the survey of the
coast of South America. He tries to do everything for the welfare of the
native peoples he finds in order to help them to survive in a changing
world. This is contrasted with Charles Darwin, a keen sportsman from a
wealthy family of doctors and industrialists. Darwin is horrified by the
primitive Feugians and Australian Aborigines, saying that they are rightly
doomed to extinction by the more vigorous, better adopted races of humanity.
What a contrast there is in the perceived perception of
Darwin and Fitzroy these days. Darwin's name has become almost an icon of
scientific truth. Even during his own life, Darwin's house in the country
was sought out by tourists in much the same way that the Hollywood houses of
the stars are gawked at by tourists today. On the other hand, to illustrate
the obscurity of Fitzroy in the modern world, I find that in the Wikipedia
entry for the term "Feugians",
under the heading "European contact", the assertion is that four Feugians
were transported to England on the schooner "Allen Gardiner" in the year
1830, and so forth... What nonsense! This is the same level of casual
ignorance as would be given if, for example, the Wikipedia article for the
term "Evolution" would attribute the theory to Lamarck rather than to
Darwin. Perhaps somebody will correct the mistake some time or another. But
the fact that it exists gives us a feeling for the darkness of the world in
which poor Robert Fitzroy lived.
Much of the book, and much of Fitzroy's life was taken up
with the fate of the Feugian, Jemmy Button. I'm sure the final departure of the
Beagle from Wulaia Bay and from Button, with all the sadness, was just as
described in the book. Many years later the Patagonian Missionary Society
sent Wikipedia's schooner, causing disruptions, bringing illness to the
Then we read of Darwin meeting General Rosas on a riding expedition with a troupe of
wild gauchos. He was impressed with the general, seeing in him a great
future leader of Argentina. The general was in the midst of a large military
expedition southwards from Beunos Aires, seeking to exterminate all of the
native peoples. It seems that they were ultimately successful, so that a
hundred years later the tribe of Jemmy Button was completely exterminated.
It is a commonplace to say that Darwin was one of
greatest scientists who ever lived. But why? His grandfather, Erasmus
Darwin, along with many other people of those times, was interested in the
idea of the transmutation of species. Even the ancient Roman poet
Lucretius, in his De Rerum Natura, describing the theories of Epicurus,
explains to us the theory of evolution. But according to the simple-minded
ideas of the Wikipedia, only Lamarck's bizarre theory is cited. Thus, for
example, in order to breed a population of horses for horse racing according
to Lamarck's theory, you would start with a group of average, slow horses,
and make them run as fast as possible - that is to say slowly - and then
breed all of them in the hope that the progeny would naturally become
somewhat faster due to the efforts of their forebears. But of course no
horse breeder in his right mind would ever follow such a stupid idea! From
the time of Epicurus almost 2500 years ago, and for thousands of years
before that, it was obvious that you breed the horses which win races and
get rid of those which lose. Is Darwin the greatest scientist of all time
simply because he recognized this elementary fact, which everybody can see
to be nothing more than common sense?
Well, there is a little more to the argument than that.
According to Bishop Wilberforce, during the famous debate with Huxley as
described in the book, God created all species perfectly, but in this
imperfect world, less than perfect individuals appear. The purpose of
"survival of the fittest" is to ensure that each species does not
degenerate, but rather it remains as near to the divine perfection as
possible. This is the divine plan of God. It is certainly a serious
argument. To refute it, we can talk about the Darwin finches of the
Galapagos Islands, and lots of other such examples. Or we can look at
fossils and think of them either in terms of transmutation or divine
intervention. Either of these things would be unlikely to convince such
staunch believers as Wilberforce or Fitzroy. And I imagine that back in his
day, Epicurus was faced with precisely the same arguments. At least we can
say that Darwin's achievement was to amass a huge number of observations of
the physical world. Unfortunately almost all of Epicurus' writings have been
lost in the mists of time, and Lucretius was merely a poet, praising an
ancient philosophy. It is only now, with the modern tools of molecular
biology that we can clearly see the workings of the transmutation of the
The book goes on to describe how Fitzroy was promoted to
the title of Vice-Admiral, but denied a ship owing to personal rivalries
within the Admiralty. His relative, the Marquess of Londonderry, one of the
richest men in England, sent him to be the Governor of New Zealand, an
impossible commission owing to the corrupt and lawless New Zealand Company
of those days. Some of the scenes in the book are obviously fantasies. For
example the arrival of his successor, George Grey, as Governor, in the midst
of the Flagstaff
War. And then we have Fitzroy's pioneering efforts to establish
weather forecasts as described in The Weather Experiment, and the
way they were frustrated. In all of this Fitzroy generously contributed all
of his financial means, ending bankrupted with many debts and finally taking
his own life.
In an Afterword to the book the author describes a few of
his thoughts. For example Fitzroy speculated about the possible influence of
sunspots on the weather. And Harry Thompson tells us how deplorably false
the long-range forecasts of the British Meteorological Office are, adhering
strictly to the politically correct dogmas of modern-day green politics. In
contrast he writes that Piers Corbyn's forecasts, using among other things
sunspot data, are much more accurate. (We can amuse ourselves by reading
corrected page in the Wikipedia.) And finally Thompson tells us that
since no record exists of the actual dialog of the conversation between
Charles Darwin and General Rosas, rather than inventing something
unrealistic he decided to simply quote verbatim the words of Tony Blair when
justifying the invasions of all those countries in the Middle East. He found
Tony Blair's words to be singularly appropriate in the imagined mouth of
such a mass murderer.
According to the people at Wikipedia - the protectors of
the values of not only Americans but of those of the rest of the world as
well - whoever they are, Robert Kennedy, Jr. is a conspiracy theorist. Well,
I am also a conspiracy theorist, although my favorite conspiracy theories
are not the same as those of the author. There are many videos online where
he describes the evils of the vaccine industry, and it is clear that he has
gone deeply into the question. What he says makes sense to me. Thankfully I
am old enough to have been a child before this flood of vaccines engulfed
humanity, and thus I must have had the usual childish diseases, giving me a
normal immune system. I certainly do not want to be injected with these
"Covid" "vaccines", but who knows what will be forced upon us in the next
few months? Germany is being run by a woman who grew up under a communist
system of values.
It is quite a long book. The subtitle is, "Lessons I
Learned from My Family". And so the book is really about the Kennedys and
what it was like for the author to grow up in such a family. The first
chapter is concerned with the grandfather of the author, Joseph. He was a Wall Street insider during the 1920s,
wheeling and dealing with the best of them in a time of few regulations
where anything goes. Amassing an astonishing amount of riches in a short
time. This and the many children he fathered are the basis of the Kennedy
dynasty. Both he and especially his wife, the grandmother of the author, are
described as being wonderful people. Then we have a chapter about the family
of the mother of the author, Ethel Kennedy, whose maiden name was Skakel. The
Skakels were also some of the richest people in America, based upon coal and
the steel industry. We are told that they were very wild people, shooting
guns, having car crashes, airplane crashes, and what have you. We are then
told that there were only 30 millionaire families during the depths of the
depression in the 1930s, and the Kennedys and the Skakels were the only
Irish Catholic members of that group. Since the US dollar has only been
devalued by a factor of about 20 between then and now, and since the United
States now has more than 600 billionaires, it seems difficult to
believe that there were only 30 millionaires back then. Perhaps what the
author meant was that there were only 30 families who reported an income
for income tax purposes of more than a million. In any case, they were very
rich, and their riches were based upon activities which the author frowns
upon, despite being part of the dynasty.
He was seven years old when his uncle, JFK, became
President, and his father was, of course, Attorney General. His mother
eventually had eleven children so their house, less than a mile away through
the woods from the CIA headquarters at Langley, Virginia, was full of
children, politicians, celebrities, sports stars, relatives, and lots of
other people who longed to be part of "Camelot", that magical feeling back
then. President Kennedy was King Arthur, and the world was good. It was one
big, fun party at the family house. We are given long lists of the people
staying with them, often repeating the lists throughout the book. For
anybody else we would think of name-dropping, but at the Kennedy's house and
the Kennedy "compound" in Hyannis Port on Cape Cod, this was everyday life.
It was the center of the world. Each morning the author's parents went
horseback riding in the woods together with the children and the other
people in the house. Then there was touch football and all kinds of
competitive sports. On Cape Cod or Palm Beach it was sailing and swimming
far out to sea. We are told of all the extraordinarily wonderful things
everybody did. President Kennedy read a book every day - as did others in
the family - despite doing all sorts of other things; being President,
womanizing (this is not mentioned in the book), consulting, traveling,
campaigning, giving speeches.
Just reading about this made me feel tired. How can you
read a different book each day and do ten other things as well? I'm a slow
reader. I read each word and often go back and read that word again,
thinking about it, getting a feeling for what is written. When reading about
all of this - and frankly when getting a bit bored with the first two long
chapters in the book on the origins of the Kennedy and the Skakel families -
I did try skimming over the text to get a feeling for this sort of speed
reading. But then what's the point of skimming over something to get it over
and done with it as quickly as possible? Why read it in the first place? I'm
sure President Kennedy and his brother Bobby had huge amounts of dense,
official texts which they had to go through, and they had to skim through
them to get an idea what they were all about. But to take seven books to
read - for enjoyment and relaxation - during a seven day trip, visiting
perhaps seven different countries, meeting all the prime ministers,
officials; giving impromptu talks to students, speeches... Well, all of this
pressure, the expectations of living in Camelot, took its toll on the children.
The chapters on his uncle, JFK, and on his father,
brought back to me the feelings of those times, particularly when Bobby ran
for President in 1968. By then I was well away from the United States,
studying in Canberra. But I can imagine what it was like; hundreds of
thousands of people, huge crowds, gathering to cheer Bobby in the hope that
he would lead the country out of the dark places of Vietnam, the riots, the
chaos... All brought to an abrupt end by his assassination. I'm sure that if
he had lived and become President then the world would have become a better
place than we have now.
I was curious to read of the authors personal thoughts on
the assassinations of his uncle and his father. But there is nothing very
specific in this book. He does tell us what the situation was like during
the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. It seems incredible. The movie Dr.
Strangelove was indeed more fact than fiction! Almost all of President
Kennedy's advisors were urging him to execute a first strike against Russia,
anticipating that there would be about 140 million Russians killed and
"only" 30 or 40 million Americans dead. Kennedy simply walked out of the
room, but the fact that he didn't order such a doomsday holocaust created
hatred in these characters. We laugh at Dr. Strangelove or Brigadier General
Jack D. Ripper or the Major T. J. "King" Kong of the film. But this was real
life. How could this possibly be? And then there were all the characters of
the Bay of Pigs fiasco. They hated Kennedy as well. And J.Edgar Hoover, and
Allen Dulles both hated him. Not to mention the mobsters Jimmy Hoffa, Carlos
Marcello, and so forth who particularly hated the author's father, Bobby.
Robert Kennedy Jr. describes how this was dealt with within the Kennedy
Can we hope that all of this madness no longer exists?
An amusing little story about a Chicago policeman who has
become disillusioned with his job, separated from his wife for no reason he
can understand, and thus has sought refuge in an abandoned farmhouse
somewhere in rural Ireland. It takes place in recent years since we are told
that he has a smartphone, yet the story is definitely placed in those
idyllic times which are gradually fading into the distant past when people
were not locked into their houses, forced to live by staring at artificially
lighted screens telling of doom and death, enforced by robotic observation
and punishing fines, eternally "flattening the curve".
He is in the process of renovating the house, walking
freely about the place, going to the shops and the local pub when he
pleases, visiting and talking to the neighbors. A free world! But a
mysterious young boy - who turns out to be a girl - is following him.
Gradually we find out that her brother is missing and she believes that the
hero, being an ex-cop, could help her to find him. The story develops. Why
doesn't she just go to the local police? What about the neighbors? Who were
the friends of the brother? He suspects the violent drug suppliers who come
down from Dublin.
For some reason, when the subject of money occasionally
comes up, the hero speaks of "bucks" - which is to say American dollars -
and the neighbors continually say "quid", meaning English pounds. But
doesn't the author realize that the Irish, along with most of the rest of
the people in Western Europe, were forced by the Powers That Be to get rid
of their traditional currency, the Irish pound, and instead have the euro.
That is the reason the Irish economy collapsed and the ex-cop could buy the
abandoned, isolated house in the country for almost nothing. Could it be
that Irish people today continue to refer to the "quid" in a kind of
pleasant, dreamlike longing for the past?
And then our hero gets a gun license near the beginning
of the story and he goes to the local gun shop to buy a .22 rifle. For pages
we are told about the beauty and quality of his rifle, how well made and
potent it is. He teaches the young girl how to use it. It is a Henry rifle, the greatest thing in guns that was ever
made. Such wonderful craftsmanship, and so on and so forth.
Of course I had never heard of Henry rifles before
reading this book. Looking things up in the Wikipedia, it seems that the
original Henry rifle first appeared in 1860 as a .44 caliber model. During
the American civil war it was more expensive and better made than the
standard issue Spencer rifle, although operating on the same
principle. Thus those soldiers who could afford it privately bought a Henry
rifle for their own use. Those old rifles had a lever action, which does
look nice in the old-fashioned western movies where the cowboys are shooting
at Indians or shooting each other outside the saloon. But I had not realized
that such lever action rifles are still being made these days. The tube
mechanism for holding the cartridges in the stock, with a very long spiral
spring to force them up into the firing chamber, hardly seems to be a good
idea when compared with the usual rifle clip.
I am certainly no expert when it comes to rifles. When in
Australia my father had bought a .22 rifle for some reason or another, and I
did occasionally go out with a farmer to shoot rabbits. It was a nice rifle,
a bolt action of course, with a very precise, solid feel to it. I think it
was German made. With a telescopic scope it was very accurate. I think I
shot many more Banksia
seed pods for fun and as target practice than I did rabbits. One time I did
go for a weekend hunting in the Snowy Mountains with a group of young
people, feeling very much ill at ease and out of place. I was given a
heavier caliber rifle which was nowhere near as nice as the family .22.
Perhaps it was a .44. There is a world of difference between those two
calibers. The .22 makes a small pop when it goes off, hardly giving you any
recoil. It will certainly kill a rabbit, but a lion or a large, charging
mafia henchman would hardly be impressed. On the other hand, a .44 makes an
ear-splitting explosion and the recoil gives you a good wack into the
shoulder. You want to be careful to hold it firmly in contact with the
shoulder before pulling the trigger.
Siran was firing a .22 pistol during the assassination of Bobby
Kennedy. Perhaps none of his bullets actually hit Kennedy. His son, Robert
Kennedy Jr., says that the actual assassin was Thane Eugene Cesar, the
security guard who was standing directly behind Kennedy, firing a .38
caliber Rohm revolver; a much more potent weapon. James Files, who claimed to be the grassy knoll
shooter in the JFK assassination, was using a Remington .221 Fireball bolt action pistol. While the
.221 bullet is - as far as I understand it - the same caliber as a mere .22,
it is heavier and is propelled with a much larger charge, giving a much more
In the story the young girl pops off a shot or two with
the Henry .22, hitting one of the intruders (they turn out to be the local
farmers) in the leg. Undoubtedly painful, but hardly as painful as the
treatment of our hero, the ex-cop, who is being beaten with cudgels. Despite
all of this, in the end everything turns out OK and everybody lives on
happily ever after.
I was well into this story about a young man growing up
in Japan; his father is a priest in a lonely seaside temple west of Kyoto,
telling his son that the Golden Pavilion is the most beautiful thing there
is, when the thought struck me that perhaps this is not merely an invention
of the author.
Looking it up I found that the origins of the original Golden
Pavilion extended back over 600 years. It was associated with Zen
Buddhism, together with its gardens and the lake which it overlooks. The
Wikipedia page has a photograph taken in 1885. We see an ancient wooden
building, reflected peacefully and harmoniously in the water of the lake.
And then there is a crisp, full-color modern photo of the situation today.
The two upper floors are encased in what seems to be a heavy layer of
metallic armor - pure gold - repulsing the world. The reflection in the lake
is broken by countless ripples of disturbance. And we read that the original
building was burned down by Hayashi Yoken, a 22 year old novice monk in the
early morning of the second of July, 1950. Thus Hayashi Yoken was about the
same age as Mishima himself.
Yoken ran up an adjacent hill and tried to commit suicide
immediately after lighting the fire, but he was unsuccessful, surviving and
being sent to prison. It seems that prison is extremely harsh in Japan, and
Yoken was suffering from schizophrenia, making things even more intolerable.
It is thought that the author, Yukio Mishima, might have visited him in
prison, but from what one reads about the stringent and totally restrictive
visiting regulations in Japanese prisons, this seems unlikely. Yoken was
released from prison in September 1955 and he died of tuberculosis in March
1956. Mishima published this book in 1956. Later, after a fulfilled life, he
successfully committed suicide in 1970. And so Mishima imagines what the
inner life of Yoken was like.
Everything is self-centered. Yoken's character is named
Mizoguchi in the book. He has an awkward stutter; he tells us that he is
ugly, and so he considers himself to be deformed, disabled. His thoughts
ramble on about the concept of beauty, giving us poetic similes, sentences
with self-contradictions. Is this the thinking of a schizophrenic mind?
Despite his egotism and self-pity he becomes friendly
with a fellow novice monk, a boy who seems to be everything that Mizoguchi
is not: pleasant, happy, helpful, secure in his future. And yet immediately
before the burning, Mizoguchi is told that his friend, who has returned to
his family in Tokyo, has committed suicide by throwing himself in front of a
truck. And then there is another friend, a truly deformed person with two
club feet. Mizoguchi has been honored by being sent to the local
"university" for Buddhist priests, and this new friend is a fellow student.
He seeks out this companionship of deformation. The friend manipulates him,
tells him of his cynical philosophy.
Mizoguchi's entrance into the temple and his enchantment
with the beauty of the Golden Pavilion coincide with the fire-bombing of
many cities of Japan at the end of the Second World War. He watches the
B-29s flying overhead, waiting for the holocaust of Kyoto and the Golden
Pavilion which he equates with his own death by fire. But it never comes.
Kyoto has been spared. Does this reflect Mishima's own experience of
frustration when he received his conscription notice in 1944 but was
rejected as being unfit, due to the fact that he had a cold on the day of
his examination and the doctor mistakenly diagnosed tuberculosis? Was this
frustration the reason for Mishima's theatrical, ritual suicide 25 years
later and his fascination with the story of the arsonist of the Golden
The book ends with Mizoguchi failing to kill himself on
the hill, watching the flames in the night sky. We are spared the horror of
the consequences and Japanese prison life. And yet it is a beautifully
written, poetic book, as is everything Mishima wrote.
The plot is well described in the Wikipedia article which
I've linked to. It is said to be based in the traditional Noh theater of
The story takes place on the picturesque Iso Peninsula,
southwards from Tokyo. A married couple and a younger man who falls in love
with the wife. He wields an iron wrench, smashing it into the head of the
husband, leaving him addled, speechless. It is now two years later. The
young man has been released from prison and he is invited to help in
the greenhouses of the couple. Does the wife love him despite her
responsibility for the disabled husband? Does the husband understand? The
young man and the wife are drawn together and apart, unresolved. The wife
confesses that she envies the young man for his violent, spontaneous act. In
the end we are told that together they murdered the husband; the young man
has been sentenced to death and was hanged while the wife languishes in a
woman's prison, visited by the narrator.
I was reminded of Tanizaki's The Makioka Sisters, but this one is much more
claustrophobic and sinister. Tanizaki was writing in the middle of the
Second World War of an elegant, refined Japanese family, declining from its
position in polite society. In contrast the family Mishima describes comes
from common soil, lacking in all elegance. Yakichi is the father, an old
man, perhaps in his 70s. He grew up in a poor farming village, joined a
merchant shipping corporation where he became president of the firm in 1938
and then retired in 1939. In 1935 he bought a ten acre farm together with a
large house near Osaka, thinking to be a gentleman farmer and enjoy his
advancement through life. But it is now after the war and he is left with
nothing but the farm; "the peasant blood revived in him". His wife has died
and they had three sons. One of the sons is living with his wife in the
house. They keep to themselves in their room as much as possible with
literary amusements, only helping reluctantly with the farm work which is
forced upon them. Then another son is in Siberia, a prisoner of war, lost
perhaps forever, long after the war. His wife lives in the house together
with her two small children. And finally we have the main character, Etsuko,
who married the third son.
Etsuko's husband had been a ruthless womanizer and we are
told of her complex emotions. The husband became sick and lingered on in
hospital with Etsuko administering to his suffering, finally possessing him
despite the other women who came to pay their respects to their lover. When
the husband died the father, Yakichi, invited Etsuko to come and stay in the
large house on the family farm.
Gradually the old man with his loose, leathery, fallen
skin and old farmer's clothes intrudes upon the young Etsuko, finally openly
sleeping with her in her bed. She, who is a woman of more refined
background, has lost all sense of propriety. And she secretly desires
Saburo, the young, vigorous hired hand who works in the fields of the family
farm. So the story develops. Perhaps this whole situation was not so
uncommon in earlier times when people lived together on small farms. And
perhaps it is not so uncommon today when people live together, locked down
in small houses, only venturing outside with masks and social distancing.
Saburo has impregnated the maid, Miyo. Etsuko sends Miyo
away. To have Saburo? to escape from Yakichi? but does Saburo even care? The
story ends with murder.
The author is an American of Chinese ancestry whose
parents emigrated from Hong Kong in the 1960s, the father being a physicist
with NASA and the mother being a professor of chemistry at Cleveland State
University. She herself attended the prestigious Shaker Heights High School and then Harvard
University. It is thus a leap of imagination to consider the husband in the
family drama of this book.
James Lee is a professor of history at a small town Ohio
college. He was born and grew up in San Francisco where his poor immigrant
parents work as the janitor and the cook for an exclusive school where he is
tolerated for free. He is the only pupil of Asian extraction and is thus he
is the continuous butt of the demeaning jokes of everyone else. Despite
everything, through hard work and continuous study he obtains a scholarship
to Harvard where, after graduation, he goes on to obtain a temporary
position teaching the history of cowboys in the Wild West. At Harvard he is
again the lonely outsider, rejected, friendless.
Since I have never been to Harvard, and Celeste Ng has,
it is clear that I have no reasonable basis for questioning this aspect of
the book. Nevertheless we can read one or two things which have been written
about those Ivy League universities. And we can recall Anthony Trollope's
description of his entrance into the British Postal Service where, as a
matter of form, he was asked a number of questions, none of which he could
answer, yet he was still accepted into the fold on the basis of personal
family contacts. He contrasts this with the system of competitive exams with
which he disapproved. Harvard had, of course, adopted the method of
competitive exams for admitting new students. But it was found that on the
basis of pure merit, almost all the successful applicants were of Eastern
Asian extraction, to the relative exclusion of categories which were earlier
successful, such as Jewish people, those of Old New England stock, and
African or Native Americans. Thus, unfairly, in recent years people of
Eastern Asian ancestry have been discriminated against in the admission
process in order to prevent the university from becoming a purely Eastern
Asian institution. Which is to say that I can hardly believe that the
author, or the character of the father in her book, could have felt very
much out of things at Harvard.
This impression is reinforced when we learn that Marilyn,
the mother in the book, a woman of white, Virginian, southern family (her
mother at first believed that James Lee was perhaps related to the Southern
hero, Robert E. Lee), an eager student with ambitions to become a medical
doctor, attends a lecture of the fledgling James Lee; follows him into his
office; throws herself at him, ending up in the bed of his apartment near
campus. Pregnancy soon follows, confounding her medical ambitions. And thus
we have two frustrated parents: James, an outsider, rejected in his attempt
to become a full professor at Harvard, believing this to be due to
discrimination against Asians, and Marilyn, reduced to being a "mere"
housewife in a small Midwestern town.
After a few years of married life they have two children:
Nathan who is maybe 7 or 8 and Lydia, about 5. The mother, Marilyn, can't
stand it any more. In the local hospital she sees the neighbor, a single
mother who is a doctor of medicine, being treated with respect by all the
other doctors. Yet she, Marilyn, is nothing, a nobody. And so she decides to
just disappear, leaving her old boring life behind, driving away in her car,
leaving no message, the family in the lurch, to start a new life studying
medicine in some distant town. James is devastated. Where can she be?
Obviously she just wants to get away from him, the other, the Asian, the
soiled foreigner. The children are also devastated. Where is their mother?
Has she died? The house is in chaos. James locks himself in his room all
day, brooding, depressed. The children watch television from 8 in the
morning till midnight, nonstop.
Meanwhile Marilyn is having a wonderful time, getting
started in her studies, secure in her financial situation owing to the fact
that her mother has died and her inheritance includes a house which she has
sold. But then tragedy strikes. She realizes that she is pregnant, having
injudiciously slept with James just before she left him. How dreadful. She
must go back.
It is now ten years later and it is the main part of the
story. That episode where Marilyn ran away is taboo; it is never spoken of.
James sees himself in his son Nathan, a social failure, a nothing, and also
for Marilyn her son is nothing, just another young man. He has been accepted
to Harvard. This means almost nothing to his parents. But Nathan himself is
overjoyed about finally being able to leave the family.
Everything is concentrated on Lydia. As a small child
when her mother disappeared, Lydia had told herself that if, by some
miracle, her mother might reappear, she would then do everything to be a
most wonderful, loving daughter for her mother. And Marilyn wants Lydia to
be everything she herself had wished for: to be a respected medical doctor;
to have nothing to do with housework, cooking, and all those other demeaning
activities of a housewife. Lydia does everything Marilyn wants. She sits for
hours over her homework, closely supervised by Marilyn, saying how she likes
physics, chemistry, and all that, but secretly hating it, gradually falling
behind. Her father keeps asking about her wonderful her social life at
school, and she pretends to have a large circle of friends, speaking for
hours into the dial tone of the telephone, knowing practically no one.
Marilyn hates the fact that James thinks Lydia should have a social life.
That would only distract her from her important studies. And James hates the
fact that Marilyn forces her to study continuously, depriving her of her
important social life. But all of this is unsaid, taboo. And finally there
is the young 10 year old Hannah who spends her time hiding under tables,
making herself invisible in this family of unspoken tensions.
Of course the story takes place in past times, before the
Great Reset. I wonder how the story would have turned out in today's world.
Would it also have ended in tragedy? After all, physically James would
neither have gone to school nor to university. Instead he would have
experienced both using illuminated screens. And when venturing outside with
his mask and staying distanced from others he would have been in the same
socially isolated state as everybody else. Hardly recognized. So that would
have been OK. Marilyn would have been unable to leave the family to simply
drive away to some distant college which would have been closed anyway, and
thus we would have been spared that initial drama. And Lydia, since she
would have been as socially isolated as everybody else, would not have had
to pretend that she had friends. Furthermore, it would have been easy for
Marilyn to submit Lydia's homework to the school over the internet herself,
pretending that it was done by Lydia, and thus Lydia would have had a
wonderful virtual academic career, satisfying everybody.
I enjoyed this more than the last one. The story takes
place in the Shaker Heights suburb of Cleveland which is where the
author grew up, and in particular in the Shaker Heights High School where
the author was a pupil. I cannot imagine writing a story about the high
school I attended since I can hardly remember what it was like. It was the
Southern Regional High School at Manahawkin, New Jersey. Looking at pictures
of the school in the internet leaves me with the feeling that the place
where I went to school was surely totally different from that. It is a
complete disconnect with the one or two vague, nebulous visions which appear
to my mind's eye when I try to bring up memories of school.
Going by Celeste Ng's account, at least half the pupils
at Shaker Heights not only had their drivers licenses but also their own
private cars as well. That was certainly not the case at Southern Regional
back then in the early 1960s. Nobody had a drivers license, and certainly no
pupil had a personal car. After all, at least in those days, only people
over the age of 18 could obtain drivers licenses in New Jersey. Of course I
did have one or two friends, but all of this intense social life..? Sexual
adventures, pregnancy, abortions. Is school so different now than it was 60
years ago? Or was I simply unaware of what all the other pupils were doing
Thus, imagining what the other children at Southern
Regional might have been doing without telling me, I read through the
present book of pubertal emotions. There is also a woman who is an artist of
photography, together with her teenage daughter, and a Chinese fast food
waitress abandoning her baby which was then adopted by a childless Shaker
Heights couple; but the waitress subsequently wanted her baby back, leading
to much turmoil. It was a good read.
Celeste Ng seems to base her stories on the premise that we have on the one
side the "normal" world (at least the "normal" of the United States),
and then we have people (particularly Chinese) who don't fit into this
normal, causing problems. I suppose that is the basis of many stories, with
all sorts of variations on the theme. But we are now in this "New Normal" of
the Great Reset, with humanity transformed into masked zombies. I still find
this to be difficult to believe. And so a book such as this, where people
just spontaneously visit each other, doing normal things, has become a kind
of fantasy story of the past.
It appears that William Henry Gates III is the evil force behind this
transformation of the world. He presents himself to the world with the
childish name "Bill", as if he were an awkward high school pupil. But after
all, such a notorious person as Lee Harvey Oswald is always referred to with
his full name as it would appear on an indictment. We never hear of Lee
Oswald. Or another case which springs to a mind which is as old as mine is
that of Frances
Gary Powers. He was flying his U-2 spy plane over Russia in 1960 when
it was shot down. He parachuted to safety and was captured by the Russians.
The CIA had supplied him with poison capsules in order to commit suicide,
but he didn't take them. And thus he was subsequently spoken of in the news
with his full name, as if he were accused of cowardice and treachery. Never
the more friendly "Frank Powers". Thus I refuse to think of this evil master
of the world - with his horrible operating system - as "Bill" or "Billy".
Thinking of reading something light, I started to read
another book: The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa.
Japanese. The Professor has had some sort of accident, leaving his brain
unable to make new memories. And so everything more than 80 minutes in the
past disappears for him into nothingness. The housekeeper comes to keep
house, being newly introduced each morning to the professor. We are told
that he was a professor of mathematics. He spends the day gazing towards
infinity, attempting to solve one or another arithmetical puzzle which he
finds in a magazine of such puzzles. We learn that his income derives from
the fact that a correct answer to a puzzle is rewarded with a cash prize. Is
this the system of pensions for retired professors in Japan? How
unfortunate! Happily my pension arrives each month regardless of whether or
not I have been able to solve any puzzles in the meantime. Occasionally the
housekeeper distracts the professor, and he explains to her one or two
tricks of the puzzle solvers trade. I read through perhaps the first quarter
of the book, and up till then the author had done nothing more than to
explain with various formulas and diagrams how to add the numbers from 1 to
100. This seemed to be the limit to his bag of arithmetical tricks, and so I
gave up in disgust.
And thus I started to read the present book. We have two
stories: then and now. In the then story we have a young woman in an
aristocratic mansion with extensive gardens in England; Cornwall; 1887. Her
father travels the world collecting exotic plants which he sells for vast
sums of money to somebody or other. The great prize is a flowering plant
called the Devil's Trumpet which is to be found in the mountains of Chile.
His ambition is to find it before his evil rival does, another plant
collector from Cornwall who will stop at nothing. But the father dies,
asking his daughter to travel to Chile and bring back a specimen in his
stead. She travels with her maid, making many botanical drawings, finding
the flower, falling madly in love. Torrid scenes in an Andean hut; marriage;
a baby; ending in tragedy. The maid escapes with the baby girl and the
flower, together with seeds and the drawing book, to a new life in
The now story is of a young woman in Sydney who has a
business looking after people's gardens. Her grandmother, who had one of
those row houses in Paddington, dies, leaving the house to her. The builders
are in, knocking down walls, and suddenly they find a hidden box. It
contains the book of botanical drawings and the seeds. Gradually she
realizes what they are. Her long lost great, great, and maybe another great,
grandmother. She travels to England to find out about all of this, meeting a
fellow at Kew Gardens with whom she falls in love. Then she travels to
Cornwall and meets a long lost great, great..., great aunt and admires the
old family stately home which is now owned by the National Trust.
All in all a romance best suited for teenage girls, but
still, I liked it.
This is a nice, calm book of loneliness and love. Tsukiko
is perhaps 40, single, working in an office in Tokyo. I imagine she is not
especially attractive. She frequents a bar, or sushi restaurant with bar.
And sometimes she meets an old man who was her teacher back then, 25 years
ago when she was in high school. She calls him Sensei, which is the Japanese
word for "teacher". He is also comes regularly to the bar. They drink a beer
or two, then they start on saki. And Tsukiko, who is telling us all about
it, describes the food they eat. Japanese things described using Japanese
words. Who knows what it is? It sounds good. It must be very tasty, spicy.
But they do drink too much. We are told how the bottles of saki pile up as
the evening goes on.
Sensei is retired. He must be above 70. They are an
unequal couple when they are together but often weeks go by without Tsukiko
seeing Sensei. She doesn't want to impose on him After all, he is a
dignified old man. She just hopes she will again meet him in the bar.
Gradually they do come awkwardly together. They go for a weekend to an
island (sleeping in separate rooms at the inn) and walk up a hill to
discover the grave of Sensei's wife. Tsukiko tells Sensei that she loves
him. For weeks afterwards Sensei does not come to the bar. Finally they do
come together, and the book ends with Tsukiko alone; Sensei has died.
Sanshiro, by Natsume Soseki
I'm in a phase of reading Japanese books. As far as I
understand it, Japan has remained a sensible, open society in this age of
hysteria. Looking through amazon for another book to read (the real
bookshops of Japan are not all locked up, or locked down as is the case
here), I saw that there was an English version of Tanizaki's Naomi,
and so I downloaded it to the Kindle. I had enjoyed reading his The
Makioka Sisters which had been beautifully translated by Edward
Seidensticker. Starting to read Naomi, I immediately became
confused. Many sentences made no sense at all. Grammatical nonsense. It was
soon apparent that amazon, or whoever was originally offering the book, had
done nothing more than put the Japanese text of the book (which had probably
been scanned from an old library edition, resulting in many errors on that
score as well) through some sort of primitive translation software, and then
had the audacity to sell such a monstrosity! Thus for the first time
in my life I was motivated to write a review in the amazon website,
expressing my disappointment. Looking further, I decided on the present book
which certainly was translated by a real person: Jay Rubin.
The book is said to be a classic of Japanese literature.
wrote it in 1908. A "coming of age" story.
We begin on a train. Sanshiro, our hero, is traveling
from his home down in the south of Japan to a new life in Tokyo. He is in
his early 20s. The family has a prosperous farm; he has finished school and
he his on his way to start his studies at the university in Tokyo. A very
special privilege in those days.
In his Introduction to the book Jay Rubin explains that
back in Soseki's day, the trip would have taken 31 hours to get as far as
Nagoya, then spending the night in an inn, the next day it would have taken
a further 26 hours on the train to get to Tokyo. In contrast, the whole trip
these days takes just 6 hours on the bullet train. This reminds me of a trip
I once took as a student from Rockhampton to Brisbane on the "Sundowner
express" train. For some reason I didn't fly on the plane. Perhaps I was
curious to experience something different. The train was incredibly slow,
often traveling at the speed of a bicycle. At least I could sleep overnight,
although the temperature was freezing. Despite its lack of speed, the
Sundowner was equipped with a very powerful air conditioning system, cooling
the air from the sweltering atmosphere of a Queensland summer down to the
level of a refrigerator. Unfortunately the windows could not be opened. On
arrival in Brisbane I immediately went out to the airport and got on a plane
to continue my journey down to Sydney.
Sanshiro is sitting in the train. He doesn't have a bunk
bed to lie down on. The carriage is almost empty, but he notices an
attractive young woman in a seat a few rows away. She has a nice, deeply
tanned complexion, coming from the healthy south, and Sanshiro compares this
with the pallid skin of northern, city people. Then, happily, the woman gets
up and sits down right next to Sanshiro. She speaks with him, but he doesn't
know what to say. Gradually the train approaches Nagoya and the woman asks
Sanshiro to help her find some accommodation for the night. She follows him
in the dusk, avoiding the expensive hotels near the station, finding a cheap
place in a back street. The inn assumes that they are a couple, one way or
another, and offer them a single room with a single bed. Sanshiro doesn't
know what to say. He asks for another futon, but the maid merely smiles. The
woman takes off her clothes while Sanshiro modestly turns his back to her.
She gets comfortably into bed beneath the mosquito net. What should he do?
Eventually he takes a blanket and makes a kind of barrier between himself
and the woman, getting under the net, and lies sleeplessly through the
night. The next morning the woman is off to another destination, and when
departing, with a half smile she tells him that he is a coward, isn't he?
Traveling onward towards Tokyo he thinks about this and
gradually gets into conversation with an older man who philosophizes on one
thing and another. Japan has recently won the Russo-Japanese war, and
patriotism is running high. The man tells him that it will all end in total
disaster for Japan. Sanshiro wonders if such talk is treasonous. As we get
on with the story we learn that the man is a professor in Tokyo, and
Sanshiro will have much to do with him in the next year or two. But at the
moment the encounter is pure chance.
Upon arrival Sanshiro finds his lodgings and then goes to
see a cousin who works in the university. He is a professor of physics whose
laboratory is in the basement. His experiment involves measuring the
pressure of light. Indeed, these days some people imagine a feather-light
spacecraft with a large reflecting sail setting off from the Earth and then
shined on with intense laser light, the pressure of which will gradually
accelerate it to millions of miles an hour so that many years (rather than
centuries) later it will flash by Alpha Centauri, sending a signal back to
Earth. A hopeless sort of vision. And Sanshiro feels that his cousin leads
an empty, unfulfilling life in his underground laboratory, cut off from
normal human affairs. I suppose Sanshiro is enrolled in a course of
literature, or whatever. He emerges into the summer sun and sits by a lake
on campus, seeing a beautiful woman in the distance. She is Mineko. Later he
visits the cousin's sister, Yoshiko, who is in hospital with some trifling
illness. Mineko is also there. Gradually he sees more and more of Mineko.
She seems to want him, but remains frustratingly distant. Sanshiro
fantasizes about marrying her. But who is he? A mere first year student. She
is destined for a more established man.
We learn about the professor from the train. His field of
interest is English literature, but without a position at the university.
Instead he scrapes along with a few lectures at some sort of college or
other. A few of the students appeal to the university authorities to have
him made a full professor, saying that it is not right that all the
professors of English literature are foreigners. A Japanese should also get
a position. All of this reflects the actual experience of the author,
In the end Mineko marries someone else. Sanshiro
continues to receive letters from his mother telling him about the
neighbors, with their wonderful, beautiful daughter who would make him such
a fine wife.
by Natsume Soseki
This one was indeed translated by a real person. In fact
there is a Note by the Translator included at the end whose name is nowhere
mentioned in this edition. It is a translation from 1918. The book is meant
to be the humorous story of a simple-minded person, but the translator
overdoes things, giving a crude, clunky text. And the text offered by amazon
seems to have been scanned from a library book, resulting in the occasional
obvious scanning error. But the original Japanese text made Soseki famous in
Japan, and the book is considered to be a classic.
The character Botchan tells us about his childhood. He
wasn't particularly interested in anything. For the lack of anything better
he drifted into a course of physics which he half understood. This led to an
invitation to become a teacher of mathematics at a school in some obscure
town, far from Tokyo, on the coast somewhere. And then we have a description
of all the problems he has as a teacher. The other teachers do nasty things
to one another. The pupils, particularly the older ones, are loud, rude,
uninterested. Botchan is made to do things against his will. All very
unpleasant. After a month of this he gives up in disgust and returns to
Tokyo to try something else.
Yes, I could never have been a school teacher. And I'm
sure my lectures at the university were less than inspiring. At least the
students were attending of their own free will. I simply lack that
gravitates that some people have - I don't take things seriously. The one
person I have seen who was full to overflowing of gravitates was Jordi
Savall, the viol virtuoso.
But the thing that a successful lecture really needs is
that very rare phenomenon: a student who shows his interest and actively
asks questions, motivating the others to become equally interested. On the
other hand I can't really complain. As a student I was as silent as
everybody else, a dead weight on the general atmosphere of the lecture room,
believing the best thing was to study and think for myself.
It is said that when the author, Natsume Soseki, lectured
at the University of Tokyo, the students stayed away in droves. After a few
years he gave up his position as professor and took on a higher paying job
writing novels in serial format for a newspaper.
Another classic of Japanese literature. This one was
first published in 1915. A beautifully sad story. Otama is the
daughter of an old man who had a small shop selling sweets in Tokyo. She is
beautiful but barely educated. A rough policeman marries Otama, intimidating
the father, but it soon turns out that he is already married. Otama is thus
a "fallen woman". And then we have Suezo, a man who started out as a janitor
in a nearby dormitory for students of the university. The students often
have small debts, and Suezo begins offering them loans with interest. Soon
he becomes an established money lender, a reviled usurer (a quaint concept
in our modern, corrupt world), with a big house, a wife, and two children.
He wants more. He wants Otama. And so he sets her up in a little house and
even sets up her father in another little house nearby, giving both of them
allowances. He despises his wife, giving her almost nothing.
Then we have the narrator who is a student in the
dormitory, and we also have the student in the next room, Okada. Both are
studying medicine. Okada is all that is good. A lover of literature,
handsome, athletic, a member of the university rowing team. In his walks
about town he often passes by the small house where Otama is living. She
sees him, falling secretly in love, each day waiting longingly for a glimpse
of Otama through her window.
There are two birds in a cage which the unfeeling Suezo
hangs in the window, and one day a snake penetrates the cage, killing one
bird, causing a scene on the street as Okada happens to be walking by. He
saves the other bird, killing the snake. Otama hardly knows what to say.
Afterwards she wishes she had said so much more. For days she thinks about
what she could say to Okada. She decides to really talk to him. She dresses
in a beautiful kimono which Suezo has given her and makes herself beautiful,
waiting for Okada.
Meanwhile we learn of Okada's plans. He has been invited
by a visiting German professor to accompany him to Germany and be his
assistant for a year or two. Thus he will break off his studies in Tokyo and
instead proceed to his doctoral qualifications in Germany.
It is interesting to note here that the author, Mori Ogai, studied medicine
in Germany, falling in love with a young German woman. She accompanied him
back to Japan, but she was rejected by Ogai's family and he was told that if
he were to marry her, a foreigner, his career as a medical doctor would be
ruined. And so he married some Japanese woman or other, leaving the poor
German girlfriend in the lurch.
Okada explains his plans to the narrator. They go for a
walk, passing Otama's house, down the hill from the university to the Shinobazuno Pond, meeting a friend who wonders if
Okada would be able to throw a stone as far as the group of geese swimming
out in the middle of the pond. By chance it hits a bird, killing it. They
wait till dusk - after all, killing a bird like that is illegal. The friend
wades out to retrieve it and cook it for dinner. Walking back, Okada hides
it within the folds of his kimono, stealthily passing the police station and
Otama, who has been waiting for them. She says nothing. Okada, who will soon
be off to Germany, only betrays his agitation with a deepening of his ruddy
This is said to be one of the four great classics of
Chinese literature. The
author who lived sometime in the middle of the 1700s was born into
great wealth, but through some whim of the Emperor the family became
destitute and the author wrote the manuscript in great poverty. There is a
long introduction to the text, describing all this, what is known and what
is not known about the author, and also the uncertain state of the
manuscript which he left to posterity. It would seem to be an interesting
thing to read despite the fact that it consists of 120 long chapters,
distributed over a whole series of progressive volumes.
Getting started, I tried not to become irritated by the
flood of meaningless Chinese names, hoping that things might boil down to
the adventures of a few understandable characters. In fact I did make it
through to Chapter 7, being able to make sense of most of the names which
had come up to that point. In the printed version of the book there is a
table of the names of the characters in Volume 1 alone. This table covers
the pages 535 to 541. Heaven knows how many characters there are in the rest
of the volumes. But this isn't really the reason I gave up.
In the first seven chapters, and I suppose in the
remaining 113 chapters which I didn't read, the book is filled with
elaborate descriptions of how wonderful all the riches are of the
wonderfully rich people in the story. And how the minor characters grovel
before the great people. We read of the wonderful estates which seem to
cover square miles of area, surrounded by walls to keep whatever is out
there away. There are huge pavilions with names such as the Pavilion of
Heavenly Beauty, or the Sublime Fragrance, and so forth. In one chapter we
are in the presence of the sublime matriarch in her huge pavilion, all of
whose wonders and treasures have been related to us, and then we travel to
the even more magnificent pavilion of the sublime patriarch, carried the
vast distance from the one to the other by finely clad coolies in our palanquin...
But honestly, these visions of such a society simply do
not interest me.
I recently read an essay, showing how the fall of Rome paved the way to
the modern world. It left Europe in a fragmented state, full of competing
regions and governments, not subjected to an oppressive, smothering empire.
Elsewhere civilizations became unified, stagnant. And this is the reason
Europe and Europeans have come to dominate the world, inventing new things,
embracing change, new ideas. Attempts to unify Europe, led by Napoleon, or
Hitler, failed. And hopefully this pan-European EU project will also fail.
How pleasant it used to be to simply drive from one country to another, to a
different language, different money, the roads, the houses, the landscape
looking different from country to country. A sense of freedom. This Great
Reset with its lock-downs, closed borders, muffled faces, is a new attempt
to impose unity and control. I hope that the purveyors of this Great Reset
with their vast billions, their pavilions of luxury and power, will soon be
swept away into the garbage of history as were the potentates of China. But
modern China has again become a unified empire subjected to constant
surveillance, a frightening modern dystopia. Is it possible that the people
of Europe will be able to free themselves again from all of this as they
have in the past?
The author has chosen a strange first name for herself.
Her real name is Mahoko Yoshimoto. These two books are similar to one
another; they anticipate the "woke" generation - whatever that is - having
been first published in Japan in 1988-89. I have picked up this idea of
"woke-ness" by clicking about in the internet and being confronted with the
term, usually mentioned there in a derogatory manner. Apparently it refers
to being awakened to the idea that human gender is not related to the
expression of the y-chromosome. Maybe it is also related to the awakening of
other ideas as well.
I first read Goodbye Zsugumi. Here the genders of
the various characters are well defined. The narrator is perhaps 20 years
old. Her father was married to another woman in Tokyo, and so she lived with
her mother with relatives in a seaside resort, helping out in their boarding
house. Then finally the father was able to obtain a divorce so that she is
now living happily in Tokyo with her mother and father. It is the summer
before she starts university and she goes back to the resort to be with her
old friends on the beach. Zugumi is another girl, perhaps a year or so
younger than the narrator. We are told that she is in the process of dying.
But she seems to live extremely vigorously for someone in the throes of
death. She also has an extremely bad temper, making life horrible for all
others, using the fact that she is a victim of death as an accusation. As
far as I understand things, victimhood is a prime element of "wokefullness".
Is it pleasant to be a victim? I have never been one, so I don't know.
When skipping along the beach, Zsugumi and the narrator
meet a very well mannered boy with his dog, and he falls in love with
Zsugumi. He had a life-threatening genetic defect, but that was fixed with
an operation some time in the past. Zugumi pretends to be nice when he is
around. Is niceness her true nature, or is it her playing on victimhood?
Violent youths do horrible things to the little dog and so Zugumi nearly
murders them. At the end of the summer the narrator returns to her more
normal family and university in Tokyo.
Kitchen also involves a young woman, the
narrator. Her parents are dead and she has been brought up by her
grandmother. Unfortunately grandmothers - as well as grandfathers - tend to
die on you. The grandmother dies and the young woman is left alone in the
world. A victim of death... Well yes, such is the fate of everybody, whether
woke or non-woke.
The narrator moves in with a young, very adolescent man
and his father. The father is a transvestite who runs a transvestite bar in
Tokyo. Thus the father is referred to as the mother of the (maybe)
boyfriend. We are told that this mother-father is the most wonderful person
there can possibly be. Everything is centered on her-him. In the end, she-he
is killed by a violent, bigoted man. The narrator at this time was no longer
living with them, she is studying to become a professional cook. And she is
now again all alone in the world. Again a victim of death and loneliness.
Clearly I am not the type of reader Banana Yoshimoto had
in mind when she wrote these books. It seems to me that the best way to live
is within a family, enjoying the progress of life from one generation to the
next, not complaining unnecessarily about the ups and downs of things, the
beginnings and the ends. Happy are those who enjoy such a life.
There are so many books and so many stories. Often the
authors seem to churn out one book after another and we wonder where the
stories come from. Is it imagination? Lived experience? But then there are
other kinds of books in which the author has dedicated years of her life to
telling a story which, for her, is deeply important, life changing.
Mengiste was born in Ethiopia but now lives in the United States. When
she was a small child her parents escaped from the country and the brutal Ethiopian Revolution of 1974. But this book is
concerned with an earlier episode of brutality, the Italian Invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. Italians like to
think of themselves as being innocent, care-free people, living the good
life. And it is pleasant to travel to Italy on holiday. But Italy is also
the Mafia. And many generations ago they were the Romans, an oppressive,
fascist civilization which dragged on and on for centuries, terrorizing the
rest of the world.
The book is written in a dream-like style. Nightmares.
The dialog isn't marked with quotation marks and it runs together with
thoughts which are often disjointed; memories of the past; dreams of another
life. Is this the experience of a schizophrenic? Unable to distinguish the
real from the imagined. Or is it the experience of war when reality goes
It is about women in war. Hirut is a young woman, being
oppressed by a seemingly dreadful married couple: Kidane and his wife Aster.
We are told about how Hirut is whipped by Aster, slicing her back, leaving a
scar across her face and neck. What is this? Who are Kidane and Aster? Are
they Italian settlers, holding Hirut and the cook - who lives a similarly
degrading life - in some sort of slave-like condition? Gradually we realize
what the situation is. The masters, Kidane and Aster are themselves
Ethiopians, and this is a sort of medieval, feudal society, carried on into
the 20th century.
The emperor Haile Selassie was trying to bring the
country into the modern world but the old structures still persisted. Then
fascist Italy under Mussolini invaded, promising to free the common people
and distribute the land more fairly. The Italian invasion was supported by
many of the Ethiopians in 1935. But soon, with the forces of the Second
World War, in 1941, the English, together with the patriotic Ethiopian
forces described in this book, drove the Italians out. The story of Ethiopia
certainly doesn't end there. The remaining feudal remnants were swept away
by the revolution of 1974, producing a communist regime with much terror and
suffering from which the country is now recovering.
In the story of the book we dwell on the suffering of
women. We are told of the wedding night of Aster with Kidane. A violent rape
with blood everywhere while the guests wait quietly outside the bridal
bedroom to listen to the screams of pain. We learn that Aster hates Kidane
as well as Hirut. Kidane seems to defend Hirut from the aggression she
suffers under Aster, but then when the war gets going, he rapes Hirut as
well. Yet despite all of this, he is the respected aristocratic commander of
the local forces fighting the Italians.
We hear much of the rifle Hirut has inherited from her
father, practically her only possession. It is a Wujigra. That is the Ethiopian name for a French rifle
which was one of the first using metallic cartridges. It plays a big role in
the story. The women gather spent rifle casings and occupy themselves with
making black powder and sticking bullets in to make new cartridge rounds. I
was curious to know how that is supposed to work. Clicking about the
internet I found a
video where someone explains how he makes new rounds for himself using
black powder. But it is not explained how women in the bush are supposed to
make the primers. That seems to be a more complicated
operation. These modern gun enthusiasts who refill their cartridges with
black powder just buy lots of primers from some wholesaler or other.
Haile Selassie fled the country, traveling to England.
But when looking at his collection of local villagers, Kidane remarks that
one of them, a musician - his name is Minim - has a very similar face to
that of the emperor. And so the emperor's clothes, his horse, his regalia,
are organized, and Minim, the Shadow King, is paraded from town to town,
sitting in great dignity, impersonating the Emperor Haile Selassie. Aster
and Hirut, in elegant uniforms, are his young, attractive female guards. The
people realize that they have not been deserted and so they join the
rebellion against the Italians.
The book goes on to describe one or two battles Kidane
organizes to fight the Italians. The local commander of the Italian forces
is Carlo Fucelli. He orders that one of the captured Ethiopians be hanged
from a tree. Then he decides to start a program of terrorizing the local
population by capturing people and throwing them off a cliff. One of the
Italian soldiers, Ettore, is a keen photographer, and he is made to take
pictures of all the falling victims. He has Jewish ancestry, yet Fucelli is
his friend and he protects Ettore from being recalled to Italy and the
concentration camps. Aster and Hirut are captured. They are held in a hut
behind barbed wire, threatened with being pushed off the cliff as well, but
kept alive in order to lure Kidane into a trap. In the end Kidane's forces
triumph. Fucelli dies, but Ettore survives and hides in Ethopia, thus
surviving the fascists as well. It is a savage, violent story which has
gotten me to think about Ethiopia which, together with Liberia is the only
African country to have escaped European colonialism, despite these abortive
The narrator, Sentaro, is perhaps in his 30s. He works
alone from 8 or 9 in the morning till the evening in a small shop selling
some sort of traditional Japanese street food. Pancakes covered with what
sounds like a sugary concoction made with the juice of some sort of beans
which simmer for hours beforehand and are then strained. It must be very
unhealthy. Occasionally people come along the street and sit on the stools
outside, eating these pancakes. When school is out, groups of schoolgirls
sit and gossip.
Our hero does not make the sweet bean paste himself.
Instead he buys it wholesale in large buckets which he heats up when needed.
At traditional German Christmas markets - which of course have now been
forbidden in this New Normal of the Great Reset - the Glühwein also used to
be bought in large buckets, or casks. But still it tasted good. On the other
hand, during the asparagus season you can get cartons of ready-made Sauce
Hollandaise which really doesn't taste the same as when it is made freshly
with lots of butter. And similarly, nobody would go out of their way to buy
a pancake with such an artificial paste from Sentaro's shop.
But then one day an old, somewhat disfigured woman,
Tokue, gets into conversation with Sentaro, eventually telling him that his
sweet bean paste is no good. She offers to bring some home-made paste of her
own for him to try. And he finds it to be wonderful. Before that he really
had no taste for sweet things and he hated his boring, monotonous work in
this shop. He invites Tokue to come and teach him how to make real sweet
bean paste. But he asks her to stay in the back of the shop, afraid that her
disfigurement might put off the customers. They find this freshly made paste
to be very good, the shop thrives, and gradually Tokue gets into
conversation especially with the afternoon schoolgirls. She says it is the
most wonderful experience of her life.
Slowly we find out what the story is really about. Tokue
had leprosy, which is now known by the euphemism "Hansen's Disease". We think of leprosy as being some
sort of Biblical plague. There was no cure. It ate away at people's bodies,
leaving them horribly disfigured, smelling of decay, lingering on for years.
They were banned from society to leper colonies and never allowed back. It
was as if they were given a prison sentence for life with no hope of
release. But thankfully modern medicine has given us a simple cure,
developed in the 1950s and 60s. We learn that despite this, in Japan the
leper colonies were only opened in 1996 to let the people out. And so Tokue,
who developed the disease as a young woman in the difficult conditions in
Japan after the Second World War, had long ago been cured, but she was only
released into the outside world as an old, isolated, frustrated woman.
And then we learn that Sentaro had - as with many young
people - experimented with cannabis, being then thrust into the harsh
Japanese prison system for two years. For some reason he is working off a
debt to a drug boss, or whatever, who, however, has died, so that the wife
of this boss is the owner of the shop. And she discovers that Tokue had
leprosy and is working at the shop. She forces Sentaro to get rid of Tokue;
the shop goes into decline... There is no happy ending. Tokue dies, Sentaro
thinks of suicide. But perhaps he might see a way ahead.
Outline, by Rachel Cusk
This is the story of a (fictional?) trip the writer takes
to Greece in order to earn a bit of money with two simple sessions of
teaching creative writing in English for native-Greek-speaking Greeks. The
book was first published in 2014, so obviously it was a time before such
things were forbidden in the New Normal of the Great Reset. Reading it
awakens a nostalgia for all of those lost freedoms we had in the good times
of the old normal.
We begin on a plane from London to Athens. Sitting in a
narrow seat, warmly confined in the cylindrical cabin, there is a feeling of
isolation from outside reality. Through the small windows dusk is turning to
night. The stewardesses are moving their wheeled metal containers, filled
with drinks and dinners on plastic trays, along the aisle. And the narrator
comes into conversation with her neighbor in the next seat. A Greek. He
travels between London and Athens every few weeks. His family were wealthy
ship-owners. He tells her about his first marriage, his children, his second
marriage, his views on what went wrong, who was to blame, his more
straightened circumstances. She tells him that she is also divorced and that
she has children.
In Athens there is an interlude when she explains what
the apartment is like which she is renting for the 3 or 4 days of her stay,
presumably using Airbnb. She doesn't sleep well. It is summer, hot. The next
day her neighbor from the plane rings (she has given him her number) and
invites her out on his boat for a swim. He picks her up in his small car and
drives hectically for an hour along the coast to a small marina. The boat
has a little cabin, only big enough to sleep one - or two people, he tells
her, if they are very much in love. It has a powerful outboard motor. In a
burst of virile exuberance he suddenly opens up the throttle, producing a
loud roar, and the boat lurches forward, almost upsetting the narrator,
nearly sending her over the side. But he remains at the wheel, never looking
backwards, so that in the tousling wind with the hard bottom of the boat
slamming on the small waves she is able to study his broad, hairy back and
his diminutive stature. Arriving at a small island with a bay they
alternatively swim and observe a family lounging and swimming on a larger
Back in Athens she tells us about her first session of
teaching creative English writing to Greeks. She asks the participants to
describe what they saw on the way to the class this morning. A whole
collection of little vignettes. One woman had nothing to say, and at the end
she tells the narrator that the session was worthless and a scandal which
she will immediately report to the authorities.
She meets one of the other teachers of the course, an
Englishman. But although I read the book only a couple of days ago, I have
forgotten what he told her. Then she goes to a restaurant with a Greek
writer she knows, and he brings along another Greek writer, a woman, who
tells us all about her marriage. Later there is another restaurant with a
couple of other Greek women, one an extravagant lesbian. (Why are they
called lesbians? Were all the women on Lesbos lesbians during the time of
the ancient Greeks?)
Looking it up just
now I see that it is due to the poet Sappho who was apparently a lesbian in both senses
of the word.
And so we learn from one person after another of their failures in marriage
Her second, and final class involved homework. The
participants were asked to write a story in which an animal plays a part.
This gives us another collection of little stories. Her neighbor - the one
from the plane and the speedboat - rings her up again, suggesting another
swimming trip. She takes him up on it. This time he drives more moderately,
no longer trying to impress her with his virility. But in the lonely bay he
stands in the shade of the cabin, the narrator baking in the hot sun, and
suddenly he comes across to hold her and kiss her. She remains rigidly
seated, staring straight ahead. After an awkward pause she swims away, and
he cools off. Back at the apartment early the next morning, about to leave
for London, a woman comes in. Another Englishwoman, a writer, coming to
continue the teaching of the course. She tells us in great detail all about
her failed love life. And so we are off, back to London.
The book was obviously written for women with all of this
gossip and goings on about failed love lives. In real life I don't like
listening to gossip. But it was an enjoyable book. I see that it is the
first part of a series of three connected books. Should I read the other
two? Not just yet.
Mishima was successfully sued by the politician Hachiro Arita for the violation of his privacy, since
the story was based on Arita's love affair with a nightclub hostess. Thus we
see that adultery in the 1950s was seen in a different light than it is
nowadays. But rather than following the affairs of Arita in any detail, in
Mishima's novel the politician, Noguchi, is retired, living alone on his
small pension. His wife has died some time ago. The nightclub hostess, Kazu,
is much more than just a hostess. She is the owner of the Setsugoan, a
magnificent and traditional building in the midst of extensive gardens in
Tokyo. It is a restaurant and banqueting hall, catering especially to the
established political class. There are various rooms for different events
and a large and devoted staff. Kazu is in her element, bantering with the
guests, organizing everything. She lives in a small section of the
Setsugoan, starting her days walking through the gardens, meditating on the
vitality and perfection of life.
There is an intimate get-together in one of the rooms
where four old men celebrate a reunion. They were politicians, ambassadors,
newsmen. One of them suddenly has a stroke, and Kazu calls a doctor. How
should the situation be dealt with. One of the old men, Noguchi, takes her
aside and explains the situation. Kazu admires him despite his age. His
authority. His dignity. He must be about 70, and she is in her 50s. And she
falls in love with him. She also meditates on her own fate. She came from
very humble circumstances, working in the questionable nightlife of Tokyo.
But now, after a life of twists and turns, she is the wealthy owner of the
Setsugoan. Yet what will she be in the end? Without a family she will be
buried in some unknown, forgotten grave. On the other hand if she marries
Noguchi, a man with an ancient aristocratic family and a magnificent
mausoleum to honor its deceased members, then she will rest in peace after
They marry. Noguchi, who is a member of the Radical
Party, is asked to become their candidate to be mayor of Tokyo. The campaign
begins. He gives dull, dignified, aristocratic speeches, while Kazu decides
to take things into her own hands. She lavishly spends money, even taking
out mortgages on the Setsugoan. She travels about Tokyo in her own
entourage, giving impassioned speeches. The conservative candidates who were
great patrons of the Setsugoan no longer come. The restaurant falls into
disarray. Pamphlets are circulated, giving details of the affairs of Kazu's
past life. All of the mess and corruption of politics. And so Noguchi loses
the election and Kazu's Setsugoan is bankrupt, about to be sold off, perhaps
demolished to make way for a housing development.
Noguchi resolves to sell all his books and belongings,
retiring to a rented house to live a withdrawn life with Kazu. But she, with
her fiery temperament cannot imagine living on in such a state. She secretly
opens a book of subscriptions to save the Setsugoan, approaching first a
former prime minister, a conservative, Noguchi's enemy. Gradually she has
enough to reestablish her old life, with all her contacts with the old
political class. Noguchi learns of her plans. He is beyond anger, telling
her coldly that she may choose between him and her restaurant. She chooses
the restaurant and divorce, the vitality of life over the stagnation of
retirement and mausoleums.
The video series Outlander on Netflix concerns
time-traveling back and forth through various mysterious stones found here
and there in the landscape. Claire, a middle aged Englishwoman travels back
to Scotland in the 18th century, falls in love with Jamie, a muscle-bound
He-Man, and experiences many episodes of sex and violence. I have the
feeling that it is meant to appeal to the erotic fantasies of older women.
But despite this I have enjoyed watching it. Lots of interesting episodes.
The present book has some similarities to Outlander. It
has no actual time-travel and thus it is not exposed to the logical
absurdities which would result if we were to take the story as being more
than an amusing fantasy. Instead the time-travel is in the traveling of
spirit, memory, emotion, through time.
The author is both Swedish and English. Two parallel
stories take place: one in the present and the other in Viking times,
perhaps around 800 A.D. In the Viking story a young woman is abducted from
her home in Wales and is brought by a muscle-bound, He-Man Viking to his
place in Sweden on the shores of the Mälaren lake, or arm of the sea, where
he turns out to be the gentle, loving chieftain of the local tribe. There is
lots of violence, particularly from the neighboring tribe, of which his evil
wife was a member. But she meets her end at the end of the story and the
young woman and the muscle-bound He-Man can finally have a nice erotic
The present-day story is that a young British-Swedish
woman inherits a house on the Mälaren lake. It is the site of the village of
the Viking story. There is an archeological dig, led by a Swedish,
muscle-bound He-Man. They discover various things, including the evil of a
Neo-Nazi neighbor living nearby, leading to an episode of violence. But also
leading to one another and a nice erotic get-together.
I had the feeling that this book was meant to appeal to
the fantasies of a somewhat younger generation of women. But again, it was a
nice little story.
At the end of the book, in a section "About the Author",
we read that he is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History of the
University of South Carolina with an impressive and voluminous list of
publications, books, professional societies. He is retired. Perhaps
thankfully so, given what universities in the United States seem to have
It is a short book consisting of a number of essays and
book reviews which the author has written over the years. As such there is
much repetition. It is all concerned with the evil of the Yankee. Of course
this does not refer to the New York Yankee baseball team. And thus a
definition of the word Yankee is called for. One way to define it would be
to refer to the cover of the book, showing four people, each in a rather
unflattering way. These are: John Quincy Adams, George W. Bush, Hillary
Clinton, and John Brown. Future history will show the worst and most
disastrous example to be William Henry Gates III.
Another way to define a Yankee is to say that it is the
opposite of a gentleman, or a gentlewoman. I think that the only gentleman
who has been President of the United States in the last 50 years was Jimmy
Carter, who had a nice southern accent. Of course Hillary Clinton's husband
also has a southern accent, but he is neither a gentleman nor a Yankee.
Reading the book gives us an insight into what has gone
wrong with American politics in recent years. In fact it is about what has
always been bad about American political life. It is dominated by Yankees.
Agreements, treaties are made and then they are thrown away, trampled
underfoot. The word of an American politician means nothing. Instead it is
all about arrogance, telling others what to do, being the chosen people, the
"City on the Hill". Insisting that others comply or else be bombed to
Star, by Yukio Mishima
In addition to writing, Mishima also had a short phase of
acting in a movie - for which it was found that he had little aptitude. The
director made him repeat various scenes endlessly until he got it right. An
exhausting business. But it resulted in this novella, or longish short
The hero is the idol of hoards of teenage girls. They
constantly follow him, shrieking, thrusting things in his face to be
autographed. The book was written in 1960, thus anticipating the Beatles, or
the adolescent boy bands of more recent times. He is in the process of
acting in a movie and must endure endless retakes of all the scenes, going
on for 12 or 15 hours each day. He is exhausted. His one friend and constant
companion is his agent, or assistant. A plain-looking, middle aged woman who
keeps him going; applying make-up, telling him stories at night, perhaps
sleeping with him. Did Mishima have a similar assistant when making that
movie? The book was not the greatest thing he wrote.
It seems that one of the great grandfathers of the author
was Chinese so that she is, racially speaking, 1/8 Chinese herself. The rest
is American, whatever that is, and of course she lives and grew up in the
U.S. But despite this she has written numbers of books, all of which seem to
be concerned with Chinese people, or at least East Asians. This one has to
do with the Korean island of Jeju, which seems to float in the East China Sea
somewhat south of mainland Korea and about half way between Japan and China.
It is essentially one big volcano, similar to the Big Island of Hawaii.
Lisa See, although being only 1/8 Chinese and not at all
Korean or "Jejuish", has written a moving and heartfelt story about the
people of Jeju. The characters are the "Sea Women" who dive in the waters
for shellfish, octopuses, and all the things growing in the shallow ocean.
They have been doing this for centuries, and only recently have they used
wet-suits. In earlier times they dived, even in winter, and even on foreign
expeditions northwards around Vladivostok in winter, just in light cotton
clothes with bare arms and legs. Diving without compressed air, just holding
the breath, down 10 or 15, even 20 meters to the ocean floor. The body
temperature sinks to the low 30s. Then they climb aboard the boat and warm
up for a half hour before another half hour of free diving. This is
something that seems to be an almost unbelievable level of physical
endurance. And it is said that it is only possible for women to undertake
such things. It is beyond the capabilities of men.
The story begins in the late 1930s. Jeju, along with the
rest of Korea is occupied by the Japanese who consider themselves to be
"colonizers" in a similar way to the English, with all their colonies in
Africa, South Asia, and everywhere else. As with the English, they treated
the colonials as an inferior race, living grandly in the best houses,
keeping the natives working for them for a pittance, half starving. Hunting
down and tormenting any native resistance.
Then we have the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki,
and a week later the surrender of Japan to the Americans. The book describes
how the Japanese brought many troops to Jeju just before the end. There are
extensive systems of caves on the island, volcanic tunnels running for many
miles, just like on Hawaii, and the Japanese were digging in for a suicidal,
bitter fight to the end.
Of course the author wasn't there, but when researching
the book she must have spoken with many people who knew exactly what was
happening in those days. It is commonly said that the United States should
not have dropped those bombs. Japan was ready to surrender. But is that just
the wishful thinking of those who wish that the world was not the way that
it really is? On the other hand it seems to me that a more humane way to
have ended the war would have been to explode the first bomb in Tokyo Bay,
in the middle of the inner harbor. That would have given an immediate and
very explicit shock to the people in charge of things. As it was, they took
a whole week after the destruction of Nagasaki to finally decide on
To continue with the story, the Japanese left Jeju, and a
few American forces arrived. People were happy to finally be free and to
have a united, independent Korea. But of course these hopes were
disappointed; the Russians took the north and the Americans took the south.
Korea was divided. The north became a closed, communist prison. Some people
trickled back from the north to the south with horror stories of what was
happening there. And the people of Jeju, who were traditionally independent,
began demonstrating for a united Korea. This provoked the Jeju Uprising, or "April 3 Incident". An extremely
dreadful, bloodthirsty time, filled with murders, tortures. Much worse than
the Japanese occupation. The terror seems to have been tolerated, perhaps
even encouraged, by the American occupiers.
Finally the story switches to the present day. During the
time of terror the narrator, Young-sook, and her best friend are torn apart
by bitter circumstances. But now the grandchildren of the earlier friend,
who are Americans, visit Jeju, and in the end the bitter Young-sook begins
to find peace.
The subtitle of the book is: "The Germans, 1933-45". It
was published in 1955. In the early 1950s the American author undertook the
project of going to a town in Germany and living there for a year or so with
his family, getting to know 10 people in the town who had been members of
the Nazi party, and then writing this book to describe what he found out.
The town he chose was Marburg.
It is an old university town on the Lahn River which was not destroyed
during the war, and afterwards it was part of the American zone of
occupation. The author had contacts with the university and he presented
himself to the 10 subjects of his investigation as a professor. He tells us
at the beginning of the book of his Jewish heritage, but in order not to
influence the subjects in one way or another, he does not tell them that.
Throughout the book, continuously, he refers to his subjects as "my ten
friends". But this is pure cynicism. From his descriptions, he obviously
I thought this book might give some insight into what
happens when people get caught up in a wave of irrational hysteria similar
to that which we have been experiencing for the last year and a half. Where
will it lead? What sorts of totalitarian horrors await us? But it soon
becomes clear that "The Germans: 1933-45" give us no insight into the
present situation. It is totally different.
Having lived in Germany for over 45 years now, I am
curious to know what it must have been like during the Nazi period. Some
time ago I read another book, "Into the Darkness", by Lothrop Stoddard. I saw no reason to include it here
as a book review; it is a short text which you can read online, describing
the author's experience of traveling to Germany in the winter of 1939-40.
Lothrop Stoddard presents himself to the reader as a cosmopolitan, highly
educated man, examining the situation in Germany at the beginning of the war
as a sort of connoisseur of such things. He was unable to interview Hitler,
but he did interview Goebbels who expounded extensively on his views of
things. The darkness, resulting from the blackout at night, depressed him.
In the middle of his stay he took a short trip to Hungary which hadn't yet
joined the war, and it was a relief for him to have lights on, and to eat
opulently, in contrast with the strict rationing which applied in Germany.
The Nazis were trying to avoid the mistake made in the First World War where
there was no rationing. The rich were able to continue living in luxury
while many of the poor died of starvation as a result of the allied
blockade. At the end, Stoddard returned to America via Italy and a
comfortable Italian passenger ship, enjoying the freedom and relaxation of
being with other Americans who were also returning to the United States. We
read that he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, but that did not prevent him
from being welcomed into the polite society in the U.S. of 1940. And he
tells us of his perplexity about the German obsession with Jewish people.
After all, Jewish people belong to the white race. The real problem was the
people of African descent. They are the ones to be gotten rid of.
And so when reading Milton Mayer's book, we should
imagine what the situation was in his United States. He does admit that the
arrest of all people of Japanese descent in his country and their transport
to closed camps in the desert could be brought into question. And he admits
that his country's treatment of people of African descent, and indeed native
Americans, is morally questionable. Then there is the fact that throughout
the 1930s, the United States refused entry to Jewish refugees. The reason
for this is perhaps best left unsaid. But nevertheless he finds it strange
that, without bringing the subject up, most of his 10 ex-Nazis eventually
start telling him how evil the Jews were. Almost all of them said that they
knew no Jews, and the ones that did know a Jewish family said that they were
fine, honorable people who were not to be confused with "The Jews" in
Indeed, in present-day America with its apparent split
between the "Trump" people and the "Hillary" people, I imagine that the
"Trump" people would gladly tell an outsider about the evils of the Chinese,
and the "Hillary" people would do the same with respect to the Russians, all
without personally knowing either Chinese or Russians. They would applaud a
vigorous, decisive government which had the courage to finally deport all of
those evil Chinese, or, in the case of the "Hillary people", those evil
Apart from this, most of the 10 Nazis said that the 1930s
after the Nazis took power was the best time of their lives. There had been
much unemployment beforehand - most of them were, in fact unemployed and
destitute. They were given jobs. The huge gap between the rich and the poor
was dramatically reduced. And society was concerned for their welfare. After
all, the Nazi party was the National Socialist Party. The one exception was
the teacher at the high school of the town. He comes across as being a
highly educated and honorable man. (There were no women in Mayer's study.)
Before 1933 he had been an active opponent of the Nazis in a town somewhere
over in the East. He was able to obtain his position in Marburg in the West
of Germany through personal connections, but he would have been thrown into
a concentration camp if his past had come to light. Thus he joined the party
as a way to save himself, yet trying to instill in his pupils (of
literature) some sense of moral integrity, always being close to the edge of
danger. And when war broke out he endured it as a common soldier. History
shows that all socialist experiments lead to catastrophe - mass murder,
unending suffering. Sometimes at the beginning there is a deceptive phase
when people are happy. Hopefully this new experiment with a Great Reset will
soon be brought to an end before it leads to a similar tragedy.
In the book we are not told that it is concerned with the
town of Marburg. Instead we have the fantasy name"Kronenberg". The author
doesn't tell us if he has also given his 10 subjects aliases. If not, then
after the book was published they would soon have discovered the true
feelings of their apparent "friend".
Of course the book does not deal with the role of the
bankers of London and Wall Street in the rise of Nazism in Germany and their
support of Hitler. We think of such people as Prescott Bush, or the
Harrimans. Perhaps these things were not so well known in the 1950s.
Well over halfway into the book we arrive at Part 2.
There the author explains in great detail the reasons "the Germans" are
evil. And he tells us about the goodness or badness of the French, the
Italians, and various other countries. At that point I gave up. How easy it
is to travel from one place to another, imagining your own superiority and
your lofty views of things. I am reminded of a time when I first arrived in
Europe, being invited one Easter to stay with a family in the countryside of
France, near Bordeaux. It was the family of a young woman who had been an
exchange teacher at a school in a different small town on the Lahn river.
The Easter feast went on for hours with one delicious home-made dish after
the other. And I was enjoying a prolonged banter with the father of the
family. He was able to speak German since he had been a prisoner of war. But
afterwards the young teacher told me that her father was, at first, lost for
words when he was told that I was an Australian. He enjoyed carrying on
about the characters of the different nationalities, classifying people in
one way or another. But his system of classification did not extend as far
as the South Seas. At the end he presented us with a bottle of old champagne
from his cellar.
And times change. Marburg these days bears practically no
resemblance at all to that which we read of in Mayer's book. It is a
prosperous, open, multi-cultural university town.
This was something light and trivial; a pause from all
that heavy stuff. It deals with what might be called "Superwomen" (in
contrast to Superman). The narrator is in her early thirties. She lives in
the greatest place in the world, the only place in the world, New
York. And she works for the greatest law firm in New York. They do contract
law. Formulating the documents which are to be signed when a multi-billion
deal is made. She finished at the top of the class in the law school of
Harvard, or Brown, or whatever. She works with another young woman who
graduated from MIT at the age of 14. Probably top of the class too. (Does
MIT have a Faculty of Law?) A good friend is another woman who is a
photographer. Her photographs are snapped up for $50,000, or $100,000, as
soon as she can snap them. The narrator is engaged to a wonderful man who
works for a hedge fund, raking in piles of money. All of this wonderful
success has its price. They have been engaged for 5 years, never having had
the time to arrange the most wonderful marriage at the most wonderful
reception hall in New York. No time to have the most wonderful wedding dress
specially designed, and so forth.
But then tragedy strikes. Her best friend, a successful,
rich young women who has had many affairs, but who has now found THE most
wonderful man, contracts cancer and dies. The narrator is, over many pages,
heartbroken, possessive of this tragedy. After the funeral she then has the
most wonderful sex with the wonderful ex-friend of her earlier best friend.
But it does not last. And we are left with her contemplating a possible life
with the surgeon who had earlier operated on the best friend.
Translated into English, the title is "False Pandemics".
If you look up the Wikipedia page of the author you will be told that his
thinking is not correct. The Wikipedia, along with the fact-checking
industry, has set itself up as the protector of political correctness. For
example it is said in his entry that "some of his statements were neither
verifiable nor falsifiable". But of course this is true! He, along with many
other highly qualified medical professionals, professors of virology,
immunology, and what have you, are telling us that the long-term
consequences of these injections of genetically modified substances which
are being forced upon us are not known. We can only make informed hypotheses
about possible consequences.
If we look up the article for the common cold in the Wikipedia we find the assertion
that it is caused by many different families of viruses. The most common are
the rhinoviruses, followed by the corona viruses (causing around 15% of all
common colds). Influenza viruses and lots of other virus types have also
been identified. Our bodies are full of all sorts of viruses, contributing
to the unimaginably complicated phenomenon which we know as life on this
earth. If, for example, it were possible to eliminate all the corona viruses
then other families of viruses would immediately fill the gap, and in the
case of weakened immune systems they would themselves cause respiratory
I haven't watched the "news" on television, or listened
to it on the radio, for more than a year now. We do continue to subscribe to
the local newspaper. I wanted to cancel our subscription, but then we
thought that a few of the back pages in the paper still do provide a few
actual facts about local happenings. And the paper itself is useful for
putting on the floor under dirty shoes and other things. Thus, quickly
glancing at headlines while avoiding actually reading the nonsense, I see
that we are being confronted with a stream of gobbledygook about various
things such as "herd immunity", and so forth. Of course these common cold
viruses mutate continuously, rendering the idea of herd immunity nonsense.
People with a mild case of sniffles go out and sneeze, thus distributing
these milder mutations widely, and in so doing allowing the immune systems
of other people to become trained to recognize the new mutations. It is all
a healthy and essential part of life. On the other hand, people who become
more seriously sick with more virulent strains of virus stay at home in bed
for a few days; those mutations are not distributed widely and they quickly
But what is the use of reason in a time of hysteria and
vast profits by big Pharma and the multi-billionaires who are controlling
by Walter Scott
I have a vague feeling - too vague to be called a memory
- that when I was in school all those years ago we were assigned this book,
or at least part of it, to read. And how I hated it! How boring it was.
Forcing myself to read one line after the other, eyes becoming bleary, foggy
with the profound effort of reaching the end of a chapter of weary pages.
And not remembering what was gotten through up till then. But now, with the
freedom to do whatever I like, to read whatever I please and to throw it
away or make fun of it just as I like, reading these things is not such a
The book was first published in 1819. According the
Wikipedia article, it is thought to be a romance intended mainly to
entertain boys. This was certainly not the case in my existence as a boy. It
is filled with obscure words which are not in any dictionary I have here.
The time of the story is the end of the 12th century in England.
The book begins by telling us about the general situation
in the England of those days. We are somewhere around the 1190s. William the
Conqueror, 1066, the battle of Hastings and all that are more than a hundred
years in the past. The Normans, that is to say the French from Normandy,
have established themselves for generations as the rulers of England. They
have built castles everywhere, lording it over the locals who we are told
are the Saxons (not the more original Celts). French knights gallop about on
their horses in full suits of shining armor with plumes of feathers,
fluttering flags, squires; riding off to, and coming back from, their
Crusades. The Saxons hate the Normans and there is a feeling of rebellion in
the air. Such is the introduction to the book. Historians would
question all of this, but after all, it is a novel. The action takes place
somewhere around Sherwood Forrest, with Robin Hood, Little John, Friar Tuck
and all those people coming along towards the end, around Chapter 35 or 40.
There is an old, established Saxon thane - or warlord -
who still survives amidst these French knights. He is Cedric. Ivanhoe is his
son who, however, has disgraced himself by joining the hated Normans,
becoming a companion of Richard the Lionhearted, or Coeur de Lion, to
put it into the appropriate French context, accompanying him to Palestine -
or The Holy Land - where they have had a nice time slaughtering hundreds of
heathens. On the trip home Richard has been captured and imprisoned in an
Austrian castle, but Ivanhoe has arrived back, incognito, where he intends
to impress everybody, including Rowena, the lovely Saxon beauty, in a tournament.
A long series of chapters describe this whole business.
First we have jousting, where we learn that if one knight is able to throw
his opponent from his horse and he remains mounted then he has won and he
receives as prize not only the adulation of the crowd but also the horse and
all the armor of the opponent. On the other hand, if both are dismounted
then they grab their swords and try and kill each other. If one succeeds
then he again wins the horse and armor of the other, but more generally the
presiding king or warlord drops a handkerchief, or whatever, indicating that
the gladiatorial fight is to end immediately, and he will decide who is the
winner. Ivanhoe, the mysterious, masked knight, wins the day and deposits
the rose, or whatever it is, designating the Queen of the Tournament at the
feet of Rowena, much to the anger of John, Richards brother, the Pretender to the throne,
since Rowena is a lowly Saxon princess.
Then we proceed to day two of the tournament which
involves all the knights in attendance dividing into two equal teams and
then staging a mock battle in front of the audience. (The logic here
confused me since according to the rules of Part 1 of the tournament, the
final victor of that part, at the end of the day, would surely possess all
the horses and all the armor of all the other participants, thus rendering
them incapable of further participation. But after all, this is an
adventure book for boys, so we should leave logic aside.) The mock
battle is a deadly gladiatorial combat, resulting in about 5 deaths and 10
or 15 life threatening injuries - perhaps partial or complete paralysis for
life - out of the 50 odd participants. Again Ivanhoe is the great hero, but
he is nearly mortally injured. Yet he is saved by the mysterious Black
Knight who suddenly rides in, saves the day, and rides away. This is
actually our Coeur de Lion, who has also decided to return
There follows a long episode where a few of these Norman
knights kidnap Cedric, Rowena, the injured Ivanhoe and a couple of other
people including Issac of York and his daughter, the beautiful Rebecca who
nurses Ivanhoe. They are saved by Richard, together with a few knights, and
also Robin Hood with his merry men. The whole thing became a bit tedious and
ridiculous so that I can understand my possible feelings back then, 60 years
ago. For example we have King Richard - the Black Knight - after he has
crossed the moat of the castle, attacking the door with his sword - the door
must have been made of solid oak a foot thick - miraculously
splintering it apart and opening a passage for the assault. We think of
The story was saved by Rebecca who is the only agreeable
character in the whole book. We read much about her father, Issac of York.
He is old, decrepit, limping from one scene to the next. Everywhere he is
reviled for being a Jew. Everybody is cruel to him. He is threatened with
torture. He pleads poverty, and yet we are then told of the vast underground
stashes of gold beneath his house in York. He is expected to underwrite all
the expenses of the pretender king, John.
Life must have been very difficult for Jewish people in
the England of the 12th century. A century later they were expelled by the Edict
of Expulsion. And yet Walter Scott, writing in the early 1800s, gives
us Rebecca as being the only believable and truly honorable character. In
the end she, along with her father, escape from all those horrible Christian
knights and they travel to Granada, the Arabian part of Spain, where they
can expect to live in a more civilized way.
It's nice to read another of these Trollope novels. There
are still lots more which I haven't yet read. In his autobiography, Trollope
wrote that this one was among his favorites. I had expected it to be about
three young friends in the Civil Service having a good time about London in
the 1850s, with a few scenes of fox hunting thrown in for good measure.
Instead it is about the three who are all very different: one being consumed
by ambition, leading to to his downfall, one being a steady, reliable,
dependable type, and the third and youngest being full of dissipation, yet
of a minor sort. And then there is the Woodward family consisting of the
widowed mother with her three beautiful daughters, plus an old uncle who is
also living in the house.
As the story develops, each of the clerks and each of the
daughters finds one another, often despite all the setbacks and trials of
young romance. We begin to feel the rhythm of the London of 150 years ago.
Was it more comfortable - at least for clerks with a steady job in the Civil
Service - than the hectic, loud London of today?
The two older clerks were in the "Weights and Measures"
department of the Civil Service, while the younger one, Charley, was in the
"Internal Navigation" division. We are told that the Weights and Measures
was the elite corps, while Internal Navigation (looking after the canals of
England) was the opposite, being so useless as to be eliminated at the end
of the novel. We learn that in the Weights and Measures the brightest minds
of England were working on the great problems of decimal currency. And also
in his later Palliser novels the theme of decimal currency constantly comes
up. It was only in 1971, more than a hundred years after these novels, that
England finally did adopt a decimal system. Assigning the best minds to this
trivial problem gives us a smile at Trollope's dry humor.
It is interesting to think that back in Trollope's day
there was a nearly universal, interchangeable system of money. It was namely
the case that most countries based their money on a coin whose silver
content was somewhat less than an ounce. Perhaps the original such coin was
the Thaler, which became the basis of the Spanish Dollar,
then the US Dollar, the English Crown, the Japanese Yen, the Peso and so
forth. But now, with money based on debt rather than gold and silver, the
things bearing those old names have become thoroughly and increasingly
debased. The branch of the present-day English Civil Service dealing with
such things, the Treasury, may be such that the clerks working there
consider themselves to be elite. But I can only imagine that what they are
doing - filling the world with unheard of levels of debt, and thus of money
- must lead to disaster.
I bought this one a while ago, started to read it, but
then very soon put it down to try something else. It is a book of 12 short
stories by 12 different contemporary British authors, first published in the
year 2000. The first story, which put me off, was the fantasy that the Prime
Minister of Britain was being driven somewhere in his official limousine in
a convoy of other limousines filled with assistants, bodyguards, and other
assorted hangers-on, when he suddenly had the urge to go to the toilet.
Stopping at a service station and going alone into the toilet, he escapes
out a window by climbing on the toilet seat and falling to the ground
outside, unseen by his convoy. And so he goes for a walk into some suburbs
of London, is picked up by a young woman who seems to have stolen a car, and
generally has an interesting evening of driving about the place, full of
undiplomatic language, ending in a fight with a journalist who had written
unpleasant things about him. Given that the Prime Minister of the time, Tony
Blair, was revealed to have been, or at least become, a key driver in
everything that has gone wrong with the world in the last 20 years, and that
he has thus become a universally reviled figure, the humor of this story was
lost on me. It simply wasn't funny.
The rest of the stories are filled with the words fuck
and cunt, repeated endlessly in all their variations. Of course this is the
standard fare of contemporary fiction. One almost has the feeling that
something is missing if those words are not included. But why is it that I
(almost) never hear such words - or their equivalents in the local language
here in Germany - in conversation, or in conversations which I might
overhear? In my experience they are only used by very aggressive people who
are working themselves up into a dangerous fit of emotion in a situation
which could easily erupt into violence.
Nevertheless, reading through the book now I did enjoy
the stories. The whole thing was elevated by the thought that the editor,
Nick Hornby, who contributed one of the stories, has donated all of the
proceeds produced by the book to a charity for helping autistic children. In
a foreword he tells us that one of his children is autistic. Indeed, bad
language is a characteristic of the Tourette syndrome, which is related to
These are two separate books which complete a trilogy, the
first book of which was Outline, which I read a couple of months
ago. The whole thing is describing a situation in the life of the narrator
in a series of episodes. The narrator is a woman who has recently gotten
divorced. She is a writer. She has two sons who are children, but they do
not seem to inhibit her independence. Is it wrong to imagine that this might
be more than just fiction?
The episodes of Outline describe a trip from her
home in England to Greece where she earned a bit of money teaching a small
group of people in two short sessions something about writing. It's hot. She
takes a couple of trips, swimming with a questionable man she encountered on
the plane. She talks about life, detachment, with one or two other writers.
But now in Transit she is back in England, moving
from some place in the country she must have shared with her ex-husband and
the children to a house in London, to be nearer to what's happening. Her
funds are limited. She has the choice of buying a nice house in a distant
suburb or a horrible house more in the middle of things. She chooses the
horrible house. She has bought the upstairs part of an old council house,
and the downstairs part - or half submerged cellar - is inhabited by two
monstrous people. They shout at her. Even when she walks across the floor on
tiptoe they bang loudly on their ceiling, which is directly under her floor,
with broomsticks, screaming obscenities. She decides to have her part of the
house renovated. For this she employs an Albanian fellow, who works together
with someone from Poland. They tear down walls, tear up the floors. Giving
their observations on life, renovations, people, in slightly false English.
The Albanian gets along well with the cellar inhabitants after telling them
that he also hates the narrator, who forces him to work for long hours with
little money. This is untrue, but still... She gets reacquainted with an old
boyfriend. The two young sons occasionally ring up; they are staying with
the father during all of this building. She escapes from London to visit a
cousin and his friends. It was a fun book to read.
In Kudos we are again in a plane, flying
somewhere; it seems to be Germany. We are told that it is not Berlin. But
there is a river. And an underground concert hall. Could it be Cologne? It
must have been a very short flight on EasyJet or Ryanair. We are in a kind
of conference for writers. The participants are in a funny hotel. They are
given coupons representing various monetary values for their meals which are
not taken in the hotel. There is chaos in a restaurant where all the
participants are expected to go, owing to the fact that the values of the
coupons do not correspond with the prices of the food on the menu. The
narrator has a good talk with the son of the organizer of the conference. He
is just finishing high school, but he seems to be capable of overwhelming
the narrator with the depth of his knowledge and philosophy. In further
episodes she converses with other participants, reminiscing about other
conferences and invitations to various places for secluded weeks of writing
and talking. There are stories of being on the stage with other writers,
promoting their books. Do these writers of novels really have to travel
about the place, giving readings in anonymous bookshops, houses, tents and
other assorted venues? How unpleasant. The book was no longer fun. I gave up
before finishing it.
This is the story of a Japanese classical guitarist,
Makino, and a woman, Yoko, whose mother is Japanese and whose father is
Croatian. When imagining Makino we are to think of the great soloists: John
Williams, Julian Bream, or perhaps more recently Xuefei Yang. Virtuosos traveling the world, playing
solo concerts, or concertos with symphony orchestras, with flawless
technique and yet with great emotional intensity. It is a special world,
difficult to imagine for mere mortals. What do they feel? Are they lonely in
all their travels, do they seek fulfillment outside music? This is a novel
about music where it seems to me that it must be so.
Yoko is, like Makino, about 40 years old. Her Croatian
father is a film director who made anti-war films. She grew up in Japan with
her mother and she is now a reporter living in Paris, but having assignments
to war-torn Iraq where she had a traumatic encounter with a suicide bomber.
And she is engaged to an investment banker in New York. What a complicated
At the beginning of the book she is in Japan visiting
friends, and they attend a concert where Makino plays so well that the
audience explodes with euphoric applause. Yet Makino himself is not
satisfied. After the concert he sits in his dressing room alone, thinking
about his situation before emerging to speak with the people who are waiting
to congratulate him. Among them is Yoko, and he is fascinated with her. They
meet again. But then she is off to Paris and Iraq, and for weeks together
they speak over Skype, send one another messages. Yoko listens again and
again to her CDs of Makino's music. They are in love.
Makino is to attend a festival in Madrid, and he arranges
things so that he will be able to make a stopover in Paris and see Yoko
again. They decide that they are truly in love with one another and Yoko
resolves to break her engagement with her fiancee. They agree to meet again
in Tokyo in a month or two. And so Yoko travels to Japan, expecting to meet
Makino as promised at the train station from the airport.
But something goes wrong. I won't continue describing the plot
here so as not to spoil things for anybody who wants to read the book. I was
so shocked that I had to put the book down for a day or two. But when
thinking about it, I suppose such things really do happen in real life.
Destiny is thwarted. At least in the end, Makino and Yoko do meet again. It
was a wonderful book.
But it was also sad to be reminded by this book of what
life was like before the world became locked down, masked, distanced. We
used to simply book a flight and travel half way around the world without
thinking anything of it. Here in Europe we could drive across borders as if
they weren't even there. I could go to the fitness studio and work the
machines, lifting weights, being near to other people. We could go to
concerts, enter a restaurant, stay in a hotel. As with the Makino and Yoko
of the book, such things belonged to everyday life, so much so that anything
else could hardly be imagined.
Who would have thought that the world would so suddenly
turn into a dystopia worthy of a science fiction horror movie? Just today
school has started after the summer vacation of 2021, and the children will
again be forced to wear masks over their mouths and noses, re-breathing the
bacteria and fungi which the body naturally tries to expel, causing disease,
shortness of breath, excess carbon dioxide. What are we doing to the
children of the world? I am reminded of Plato's parable of the cave where
the people see only the shadows of reality on the cave wall. In the world of
today, most people are living this parable. They turn on their glimmering
television sets and computer screens and stare at the colorful shadows they
see there, no longer able to think for themselves and escape back into the
real world. The shadows have told them to remain in this dystopia and to
force it on the rest of us. Will we ever escape?
Man, by Heiichiro Hirano
We begin with a small town in the mountains of the most
southern of the main islands of Japan, Kyushu. Everything is surrounded by
dense forests. The Man of the book is a forest worker, felling trees,
producing lumber. He came to the district a few years ago and has married a
local woman. They have a young child and there is an older boy which she had
in a previous marriage. But then there is an accident in the woods, a tree
falls on the man, killing him. His brother is summoned from far away Tokyo,
but it turns out that this is not his real brother. In fact the man has
taken on an assumed identity; he has swapped his life with the real brother
of the man from Tokyo. And gradually we understand the circumstances of this
swap through the investigations of the main character of the book, a lawyer.
Is it a common wish that people have to change themselves
into somebody else? Live a different life from the life you have been given?
I certainly have no such wish. Perhaps many people would like to suddenly
transform their lives in a dramatic way. For example the people behind these
"covid" gene therapies which are being forced on people have suddenly all
become billionaires. What are they doing with all their riches? Are they
buying fleets of Lamborghinis and Ferraris? Opulent castles with elaborate
gardens? Who knows? Who cares? They have exchanged their lives for something
else without having to swap their identities which were rapacious to begin
with. But in the cases described in the book, the people swapping their
identities are each escaping an unfortunate fate which has been given to
them by birth.
The author won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1994. I
find this to be astonishing when comparing the present book with the elegant
prose of Yasunari Kawabata who won the prize in 1968, or that of Yukio
Mishima, who would have won it if he hadn't committed suicide in 1970. The
book is the opposite of elegant: shall we say clunky, awkward?
It was first published in 1967. We begin with the hero -
or main character - discovering the body of his best friend, naked, the head
painted red, together with a disgusting sexual aberration, hanging from the
neck in its room. A suicide. He then goes to the airport to meet his brother
who is returning from a short stay in the United States. We are told that
the main achievement of the brother was to contract a venereal disease after
a short visit to a fat black prostitute in an American slum. Yet the brother
is a hero to a pair of teenagers who also come to the airport. And then
there is the wife of the narrator who is continuously drunk, sipping whisky
throughout the day and the night. She has had a baby which, however, was
horribly deformed. Some sort of enormous protruding growth on its head which
was removed, turning the baby, which was practically a vegetable to begin
with into even more of a vegetable, which they then dumped into some
institution and tried to forget it.
Do we really want to read about such things? Well, OK. I
suppose all of this is in the tradition of such writers as Osamu Dazai.
Perhaps after the defeat in World War 2, the Japanese were very much into
this sort of degenerate literature.
Having absorbed all these unpleasant details, the story
takes us into the deep woods of Kyushu (as in the previous book) where the
family of the brothers had traditionally been leading figures in an isolated
village. We read of further strange and absurd things, showing how primitive
the locals are when compared with sophisticated Tokyo. And we learn of a
peasant uprising in the year 1860 in which two brothers of the family played
different roles in those days. The narrator observes how his brother begins
to reenact, now, in modern times, the events of his ancestors. And so the
book is mainly concerned with playing through this absurd theater. But other
than in 1860, the oppressors of the village are not the ancient aristocracy.
Instead they are Koreans who, during the war had been brought to work in the
forest, but now own the local supermarket. For an outsider such as me it is
difficult to sympathize with a Nobel Prize winning Japanese who portrays
Koreans, who had been forcibly brought into the country to work as slave
laborers in a kind of concentration camp in the forest, as villains.
A beautifully written book in which tea, and particularly Pu'er
tea, plays a main role. It is grown on the six famous tea mountains way in the south of China, just on the
boarder with Burma - or Myanmar, as it is now called. Somehow it seems to
me that anything I might write here will not do justice to the book. The
link to the description in Lisa See's internet site is sufficient.
But indeed, I drink lots of tea. My breakfast consists
of about one and a half liters of green tea, which I make quite weak, and
nothing else. That is always very satisfying. Then we have at least
another 3 or 4 cups of tea through the day. In the book this Pu'er tea is
described as having almost magical qualities. Unlike green tea, it is
allowed to ferment, then it is pressed into a compact block, or brick, and
is often left to age for years. So it is not the nice mild, soothing tea
of my breakfast. I can't imagine that I would like it. But we are told
that as with wines, these blocks of Pu'er tea are bought by collectors,
connoisseurs, who are sometimes willing to spend thousands of dollars for
a single small block. For them the tea must have the magic of this book.
As I mentioned a few books ago, when looking at the
Wikipedia entry of the author I saw that her ancestry is 1/8 Chinese,
which is to say that one of her great grandfathers was Chinese. All the
rest of her ancestors were "Caucasians".
I always find it strange to think of this U.S. American
way of saying that a person's ancestry is ultimately European. What do
Europeans have to do with the tribes inhabiting the Caucasus Mountains of
Persia? That is to say the Persians, or Iranians, or Aryans - to use the
Nazi description of some mythical master race originating in those
mountains. In the book Lisa See constantly describes people using the term
Caucasian, so I will do so here as well. But I digress.
It seemed strange to me that the author concentrated so
very much on that single great grand parent, leaving the other seven great
grand parents completely out of things, and thus becaming a writer of
exclusively Asian themes. And so I was motivated to read this book where
she describes her family, going back to those days when her Chinese great
grand parent, Fong Dun Shung, migrated to the United States to work on
building the railroad through the Rocky Mountains back in the late 1800s.
And reading this book, it becomes clear why she considers herself to be
Chinese; to be part of Chinese-American culture, despite the fact that she
looks like a "Caucasian". It is a very interesting story. The great grand
mother, Lettice Pruett (who used the name Ticie), who married Fong Dun
Shung, did not formally marry him. After all, back in those days it was
illegal for a Chinese to marry a "Caucasian". That was covered by the anti- miscegenation laws of the United States. For various
reasons, Fong Dun Shung's name in America was changed to See.
Fong See had many children with his Caucasian wife,
especially sons, and the son who was the ancestor of the author also
married a Caucasian. On the other hand both he and the rest of the family
remained in one of the China-towns of Los Angeles. Then the son of that
family, staying close to the others of Chinese descent and while remaining
wary of the anti-Chinese sentiments of the Caucasian population of Los
Angeles, also married a Caucasian woman, resulting in the author, Lisa
See. The three successive generations of mothers perhaps felt that they
were leaving their Caucasian families behind, and therefore they play only
a minor role in the story.
Together with his American wife, Fong See gradually
established a business importing fine art and furniture from Asia into
California. This became very successful. Fong See often traveled back to
China to buy new wares for his shop, and he also built a grand house in
his old home town near Canton (which is now called Guangzhou), and a
spacious hotel there. He was an important man in the small Chinese town.
And so he decided to marry a very young local Chinese woman, bringing her
to Los Angeles as well, producing many further children with her.
Ticie was devastated and demanded a "divorce". She took
half of everything and set up her own store, continuing to sell Chinese
antiques, separate from Fong See. The company still exists. Here is a video
where the present owner of the place talks about things. And here is a link to the internet site. The author grew
up in this atmosphere of Chinese things. All of her stories about her
family through the last hundred and more years was pleasant to read. The
title of the book refers to the fact that back in the 19th century, those
Chinese near Hong Kong who were able to escape to California referred to
the new country as the "Gold Mountain".
Some years ago I read a book of short stories collecting three or four
stories each from 8 different countries: Russia, Japan, USA,... The
Russian stories were about drunkenness, those from Japan about sex, the
USA violence, and so on. Of course these themes, supposedly representing
the national characters of those nations, really only represented the
preconceived views of the English editors in the Folio Society. By
Rubin, the editor of this collection, is a distinguished scholar and
translator of Japanese literature.
There is also a long Introduction by Murakami Haruki,
many of whose works Rubin has translated. Murakami tells us that as a
young man he was completely uninterested in Japanese literature. And so,
for him many of the authors in the collection were unknown. But he does go
through the list, giving short descriptions of the various authors. In
fact, two of the stories are by Murakami himself (he tells us that he had
practically forgotten that he had written one of them). There are seven
sections, none of which deal with the Folio Society's idea of Japan.
The first section is "Japan and the West". The stories
here were written over a hundred years ago. The hero is a young Japanese
wanting to escape the confines of the old Japan. The West. Europe. Those
are the objects of his dreams. And he goes to London or Paris and finds
everything: freedom, debauchery. But also included as a short story is the
first chapter of Soseki's "Sanshiro", with its strange train voyage to
Next comes "Loyal Warriors". Two stories of Seppuku,
the horrible ritual slicing into the abdomen, ideally pulling out your own
intestines before dying in agony. In particular Mishima's story goes into
great detail. I had read it years ago and found it disgusting. When he
committed suicide using this method in 1970, he had a companion who
immediately chopped off his head, thus sparing him much pain. But the
story by Mori Ogai is of an officer who does it alone.
Then there are sections with both old and new stories:
"Men and Women", "Nature and Memory", "Modern Life and Other Nonsense",
"Dread", "Disasters",... Strange tales of ghosts, of family life, of
funerals, horror stories. Many women authors are included. There are also
two stories of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, describing
exactly what it was like to survive. People forget that even now there
remain thousands of atomic bombs in the world. How absurd it is that the
world falls into periodic spasms of mass hysteria about things which are
harmless or even non-existent while these bombs remain poised over our
heads. Then there are stories about earthquakes, tsunamis, and the 2011
nuclear meltdown in Fukushima.
There are lots of very different stories here, all of
which are well worth reading.
Yukiko, by MacDonald Harris
The Wikipedia page of Donald Heiney, who used the pseudonym MacDonald
Harris, lists 18 works, yet I am sorry to say only a few of them are
available at Amazon. Others are offered with bloated prices in the used
books category. I read this one perhaps 30 years ago when it was newly
published as a paperback. But then I lent it to some people so that it has
disappeared. Then a week ago, having another look at Amazon, I saw that
the novel has been newly released as a Kindle ebook.
It is full of atmosphere. We begin in a submarine. It
is August 1945. the middle of the night; we are approaching the south
coast of Hokkaido, cruising slowly at ninety feet with three hundred feet
under us. The bottom is slowly coming up. The narrator is Gus, the
commander. Angelo is the navigator. The mission is to land an agent,
Havenmeyer (he later tells us that it would be strange if that were his
real name), carrying 50 or more pounds of gear - guns, knives, a
(vacuum-tube) commando radio - and a large block of plastic explosive
attached to his chest, together with Ikeda, a Japanese-American who is to
act as translator, onto Hokkaido. They will then proceed up a river valley
to a power station and a dam which Havenmeyer is to blow up. The Japanese
have been separating heavy water in this power station, and while the
Japanese will no longer be able to use it, the plan is to prevent it from
coming into the hands of the Soviets.
Suddenly the submarine hits a rock and begins to sink.
What has Angelo been doing? Some of the crew are trapped in the boat. The
rest escape into life-rafts. Gus, Angelo, Havenmeyer and Ikeda are
together and they reach the beach in the darkness, half drowning in the
surf. The others paddle away towards the horizon. Ikeda, wearing the
uniform of a Japanese sailor, is sent on ahead to find Sensei, the local
contact for the mission. The people living along the coast are the Ainu, the original inhabitants of Hokkaido. The
Japanese consider them to be primitive, ignorant, hairy. We are told that
the Japanese hate hairy people. But Gus is full of body hair all over his
chest and back. He tells us that his wife had found it to be disgusting
and so she had divorced him.
Eventually the group is settled into a house on a small
river near the town of Samani. Sensei tells them that it is too dangerous
just now to go further. There is a large company of Japanese soldiers
stationed on the coast, but the Ainu will protect them. The house is a
small factory for making condoms which are officially forbidden by the
Japanese, yet they are used by their soldiers. The Ainu are experts in
working with rubber. Gradually we learn more and more about the local
people. Everybody has a soul like an animal. During a walk in the night,
Gus is surprised to be closely flown over by a crane which lands in the
river. And Sensei tells everybody which animals represent their true
souls. Havenmeyer is Groundhog; Gus is Crane; Angelo is Fox; Ikeda is
Tensions develop. Groundhog is an automaton, focused on
the mission. There is no time to waste. He has received a message on his
field radio, relayed from the sister sub stationed off the coast.
Washington tells him that he must proceed immediately to the target. But
Sensei seems to keep delaying things. He brings a curious rubber object
which when inflated becomes a rubber woman. He tells them it is Yukiko.
Then he takes Crane in his small boat alone, out to sea and along the
coast in a sleepless night to the town of Muroran. It is a dream-like
sequence. The town is completely bombed out. He is led to a tiny
photographers studio where he is photographed naked. And then they return
Things come to a crisis. Groundhog shoots a few
Japanese soldiers with his Sten gun. They begin traveling up the river,
fighting, commandeering a train, hiding overnight in the woods. All of
this leads to apocalyptic scenes at the dam with Crane - Gus - alone. And
he emerges as if from Death and Rebirth, in the quiet and calm, wandering
up into the mountains, following the path Sensei has shown to meet the
real-life Yukiko. This is my favorite of the MacDonald Harris books which
I have read.
The story concerns a woman of perhaps 35 in Japan who
has been working somewhere for 10 years or more and became burned-out. She
quit and is trying some other jobs, speaking with somebody in the
employment center. She is unmarried, no children, no attachments except
with her mother with whom she is again living.
The first job we are told about is with a firm which
spies on people. There is a man who is a writer, and unknown to him, a
friend has deposited some sort of contraband in his apartment. The
apartment has been searched when he was out, but nothing was found. So
cameras were installed everywhere, and the writer was secretly observed
round the clock in the hope that he would reveal the place of concealment.
We are reminded of the movie "The Lives of Others", about the STASI
in East Germany spying on a writer. I think in that movie they only had
microphones. In the present case there are cameras, but the microphones
don't work for some sort of technical reason. And so our burned-out middle
aged woman stares with bleary eyes at the silent video screens of her
victim for many hours each day as he sits at his computer, staring into
its screen, trying to write something. Did she observe any acts of
embarrassing depravity? What do people do, sitting alone all day,
believing themselves to be unobserved? Modern spying cameras are so tiny
as to be almost impossible to find. In the end is it the peeping-Tom who
ends up in a state of depravity?
She quits this job and tries another crazy job putting
up advertising signs on a bus route. Then something else, and finally a
job in some sort of park, or forest in Tokyo which is so vast that people
get lost in it. Her job is to drive kilometers away from the main entrance
in a kind of golf-buggy to a small hut buried in the forest and sit there
alone the whole day. She finds a strange person who has been hiding in the
Since I have never had a real job in my life (except
for a month or two when I was 18, waiting for the university to start, and
which I quickly quit) I'm in no position to judge whether the jobs
described in this book were easy or not.
These are two different books by MacDonald Harris
which I'll deal with together. It seems that a number of his books are
gradually being reprinted. These were being offered on Amazon. I first
started reading Herma. The story is of someone growing up in the
Los Angeles of the early 1900s and being able to change from being a young
woman to being a young man by some magical process which involves looking
at him/her-self in a mirror. So the name Herma is derived from the word
hermaphrodite. There are indeed animals which are true hermaphrodites, but
people to whom this word is applied are now called "intersex". This is really different from the
character in the story. In her female form she is a great singer who
engages in torrid sexual encounters as a female with various male
characters. Then in his male form, calling himself Fred, he has
torrid sex with various female characters. The female Herma listens to one
or two scratchy Victrola recordings of opera arias in French or Italian
and is then immediately and completely fluent in those languages. One of
the greatest sopranos of the day is giving a concert in San Francisco,
together with Enrico Caruso, singing La Traviata. Herma, who is unfamiliar
with the opera, has a look at the score a couple of hours beforehand and
is immediately able to step in and triumph in the role of Violetta.
Meanwhile her male persona, Fred, is off seducing various females,
spending all of the money Herma has earned, and in the meantime performing
astonishing aerobatics in a Curtis Model D Biplane which he had only discovered
an hour or two before. I had only gotten halfway through the book, but
gave up at this point, astonished by the ridiculous, adolescent, pubertal
sort of writing.
Nevertheless, I did attempt his next book, namely Screenplay,
which I had already downloaded into my Kindle. This was not so
embarrassingly bad. It is concerned with a character whose name is Alys.
His family are very rich. He tells us that the wealth stems from a patent
on the flush mechanism for toilets which some ancestor obtained. He grows
up in a large mansion on a secluded street, I suppose in the 1960s or so,
in Los Angeles. His parents pretend to be Great Gatsby types, dressing up,
partying, driving about in cars from the 1920s: an Invicta, a Dusenberg,
and so on. They leave Alys to himself and he grows up to be a
self-centered man. The parents die in a car crash, leaving Alys rich and
alone in his mansion. A strange old man turns up and Alys agrees to let
him rent a room. It turns out that the old man was a producer of Hollywood
movies back in the silent film days of the 1910s and 20s. Alys follows him
to a derelict old movie theater somewhere, they pass through the screen at
the front of the theater, and suddenly they are back in the Hollywood of
1920 or so. The world is black and white. No color. The film sets
are primitive. The acting is overblown, absurd. Since no sound is being
recorded, the director follows the action about, continually shouting
directions at the actors at the top of his voice. Alys is asked to step in
to a role in a slapstick comedy which is being filmed, the amusement
deriving from him being hit on the head with a piece of lumber and then
falling down. But he meets and falls completely in love with one of the
actresses. Returning to the modern world for a short stay, he goes to the
Los Angeles Public Library and finds among the old periodicals a stack of
magazines called PictureLand which has a story and photos of the actress.
He then returns to the past. After a number of rather tedious descriptions
of the movie acting of those days, going on for page after page which I
suppose MacDonald Harris thought was humorous, we finally have Alys and
his newly found love escaping through the movie screen back into the
modern world. But in this process, she has become the true age she would
have been without time-traveling. She is now in her 80s; no longer the
beautiful, young Hollywood star. But still, Alys continues to love her,
and they live on happily ever after.
I would have dismissed this as being of a similar light
weight as the last story were it not for the Afterword, written by
somebody named Simon Callow, included in this reprinting of the original
book. He is a film producer or director, or something, and he tells us
that he thought the book would make a great movie. Approaching whoever it
was who was responsible for MacDonald Harris' estate, they demanded a huge
fee for the rights to such a film. Over the years he has pursued this
dream, yet still unable to bring the idea to fruition. Then recently,
after 20 years of this pursuit, he was suddenly struck with the
realization that the story, with Alys finding his love in PictureLand, was
related to Alice in Wonderland. Well, OK.
These two books were a disappointment for me. Still, Yukiko
was good, and The Balloonist, which I also read about 30 years
ago, while not being quite so good, wasn't bad.
The narrator is a graduate student at Cambridge,
writing his thesis on the contemporary French author Paul Michel. Of
course both the student and the French author are just characters in this
novel. They are not real people. On the other hand the Foucault of the
title refers to Michel
Foucault, the French activist and philosopher.
Our student develops a passionate relationship with
another graduate student, a bespectacled woman whose thesis is on
Schiller. He refers to her as the "Germanist". But she is also
passionately in love with Schiller, that 19th century romantic. And she
can't understand why our student is not similarly passionate about Paul
Michel. She tells him that he still lives. In fact he is locked up in an
insane asylum somewhere in France, and it is his duty to go and find him
and liberate him from this wretched situation. Thus the student sets off
on his quest.
In Paris he enters the archives of the National Library
and, after initial difficulties, is allowed to read the papers of Paul
Michel. But he is told that the copyright has been sold to Harvard
University, and he is forbidden to copy them, or even to make notes. He
finds lots of letters which the author - Paul Michel - had addressed to
Michel Foucault, saying that Foucault is for him everything; he writes his
books only for Foucault, and Foucault is his only inspiration. If it were
not for Foucault, his existence would be worthless. And yet it is clear
that none of these letters had actually been sent. But it is now the year
1990 or so, and Foucault died of AIDS (or rather AZT poisoning) in 1984.
Is this the reason the aggressively homosexual Paul Michel has gone mad
and is now confined in an insane asylum?
With difficulty the student learns that Paul Michel is
being held in an institution in the town of Clermont-Ferrand. Patricia
Duncker describes exactly where it is: the Hôpital Sainte-Marie on the Rue
St Jean-Baptiste Torrilhon. And so I examined it using Google Street View.
The present scene shows that buildings have been
demolished and it is now an empty lot with dirt piled up here and there. I
suppose in a year or two the scene will be replaced with some sort of new
buildings. In any case our student is allowed in to meet Paul Michel. He
is led into a labyrinth of locked passages and eventually is in some sort
of common room, smelling dreadfully of urine and excrement. Michel comes
upon him suddenly and aggressively; a freighting situation. After all Paul
Michel had killed somebody in a fit of madness, turning over gravestones
in the middle of the night. Michel tells him to get lost; to go back to
where he came from.
But then that evening the student receives a phone
call, asking him to come back. And the next day they sit together in the
garden of the institution and talk. The student visits every day for a
week, two weeks. Michel does not seem to be at all insane. They talk about
life, philosophy. Paul Michel calls the student mon amour, or petit.
And the little petit student comes back day after day to the garden to
hang on to every word, worshiping everything that he - and thus we - are
Of course I know nothing of this sort of philosophy.
What egotism! It seems to be typically French, this self-centered carrying
on, as if it is so very important.
Gradually the student convinces the doctors to let Paul
Michel out for a couple of months. They travel to the south of France to
friends of Michel where they are welcomed, and they spend the hot, lazy
summer weeks in a comfortable villa near Nice. Love develops between them,
even physical love. But in the end Michel's life is meaningless. A
beautifully written book.
Miss Webster is nearing 70 years old. She has been a
teacher of French for many years, teaching in a catholic girls school in
England. But times have changed. There is no longer any discipline. She
was forced to retire early in order to make way for more progressive
teachers. She has become isolated, bitter, living alone in her house at
the end of a dirt road, somewhere near Norwich. She is watching television
and, in some way, her mind goes blank. She lapses into a kind of coma,
sitting motionless through the night and into the next day. She is
discovered and taken to hospital where it takes months to recover.
Eventually the doctor recommends she travel somewhere far away from
England in order to clear her mind, and she finds herself alone in a
luxurious hotel in Morocco. Everybody is concerned to look after her. The
manager of the hotel is a woman who takes a great personal interest in
Miss Webster. She tells her of her son whose name is Cherif, living in a
village out in the desert. She has great ambitions for him. He is to study
in Europe, in England. Miss Webster is driven in a taxi for a day's outing
into the desert, visiting the village as well, and while Cherif is
summoned to meet her, he is nowhere to be found. It seems that he is doing
something with his cousin. And so Miss Webster leaves without meeting him.
A change of scene. The trip to Morocco is now finished;
she is back in her house in England. It is evening. Suddenly there is a
knock on the door and a young, good looking man introduces himself. He is
Cherif and he is to begin his studies at the university. Miss Webster
invites him in. It is late in the day and so they have dinner and she lets
him sleep overnight on the sofa. The next day they go to the accommodation
services of the university and try to find a place for him to stay. But it
is just after the time when the World Trade Center in New York has fallen
down and just before the "Coalition of the Willing" is about to begin
bombing various Arabian countries into smithereens. The associated
hysteria results in Cherif being unable to find any accommodation. Thus
Miss Webster offers to have him stay in the spare room of her house.
He does well in his studies of mathematics and
chemistry, and Miss Webster comes out of her shell, now a friendly, open
person. She defends Cherif when the neighbors speak among themselves,
imagining that Cherif is a danger. He watches the television news
constantly for hours each day. Will things turn out badly, or will they
turn out well? I read through the book into the night, eager to find out
what happens. A very satisfying story.
The person of the title, James Miranda Barry, was an actual person who lived
from 1789 to 1865. He - or perhaps she - was extraordinary because he
(she) was a distinguished medical officer, serving in the British army for
40 years, accepted as being a man for all that time, yet upon his (her)
death, and upon examination was - somewhat questionably - thought to be a
woman. In fact he (she) was originally given the name Margaret Ann,
showing that the parents, at least at first, considered he (she) was a
I wouldn't have started reading this book if it was not
for the fact that I have been enjoying reading the other books of Patricia
Duncker. This whole business of gender, which I keep seeing when clicking
about in the internet, has apparently become quite a fashionable thing,
especially in the United States. We read about the absurd phenomenon of
schoolboys being welcomed into girls bathrooms and competing unfairly in
athletic competitions against girls. I have not read that great numbers of
girls wish to enter the bathrooms of boys or compete in athletic
competitions against boys rather than other girls. But I suppose all that
is only natural.
The Wikipedia page of James Miranda Barry includes a
photo taken in 1862 when he was about 73 years old. His servant John and
his dog Psyche are also in the shot, and we see that he is not much
shorter than John. He certainly looks like a man, justifying this pronoun.
It may be that older women gradually lose their feminine features, but
still, as a young person he could hardly have had much development of the
usual feminine attributes. Back in those days, 200 years ago, it would not
have been possible for him to have undesirable body parts sliced off as is
apparently the practice these days. Patricia Duncker seems to take the
position that he was a hermaphrodite, or intersex person, and she refers
to the character as if he were a man. According to the Wikipedia, between
0.02% and 0.05% of people have this condition. It is certainly something
which is totally different from the condition of boys masquerading as
girls. Looking at the picture in the Wikipedia of a large group of
intersex people, each of them appears to be either a man or a woman. They
look happy, and I suppose they each identify with their own appearance.
Thankfully, Patricia Duncker does not dwell on this
whole theme. The book does not attempt to be a biography or even a
biographical novel. Instead the book is divided into six parts, imagining
six phases of Barry's life. Not much is definitely known and so there is
much fantasy. She has him growing up together with a young kitchen maid,
Alice Jones, he being home-schooled by the swashbuckling Francisco de Miranda. At one stage, Alice shows the
young James her private parts and then reaches into his breeches to feel
his, concluding that he is an underdeveloped male. They grow up. Alice
becomes an artist's model, posing for James' uncle, the painter James Barry. Then she becomes a famous actress.
James asks her to marry him, but she refuses, saying that she loves him
and would never marry anyone else, but she must follow her career on the
stage. And he follows his career as a doctor. One part is titled "The
Colony". It seems to be Mediterranean. Then we have "Tropics", which
clearly refers to Jamaica. Throughout all of this his gender plays no
role. We see him battling against the abuses of colonial life, helping the
helpless. Finally in the last part we have him returning to England and
living together with the fictional and famous actress Alice Jones.
It was well worth reading; undoubtedly far more fiction
According to the Wikipedia, a selkie is a creature of Celtic and Nordic mythology
which is a kind of half seal and half human. A selkie might flop onto a
beach in its seal form and then climb out of its sealskin to be a
beautiful young maiden, dancing about in the sun and the waves. This story
takes place in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland where we imagine that such
visions may be common among the rough fishermen. The author, whose name
seems to be missing a letter, tells us that her novel was inspired by the
tale of a fisherman who fell in love with such a selkie. He took away the
skin which she had deposited on the beach so that she was unable to return
to being a seal, and then he married her. She discovered her lost sealskin
in its hiding place and returned to the sea, never to come back.
The story is told in a simple, naïve style. But it did
win the Exeter Novel Prize in 2013.
It was only after getting started on this one that I
realized that the author had just received the Nobel Prize for Literature
this year. Well, obviously it was for that reason that Amazon listed it as
an interesting possibility when I browsed about, looking for the next
thing to read. If I had known about this Nobel Prize then perhaps I would
have clicked on to the next possibility, looking for something else. After
all, these days it seems that such literary prizes are usually given to
authors who write obscure, confusing, boring books, reflecting the
pretensions of the professors of literature who are responsible for
selecting the winners. But all of that is not the case with this book. It
is well written, punctuated with abrupt, sometimes rude remarks which made
me laugh, telling an interesting, even profound story of dislocation.
From what little can be gathered from his Wikipedia page, I wonder how much of this novel is
telling us the story of the life of the author. The narrator, who, as far
as I remember, never tells us his name, grew up in Zanzibar. Then amidst
the chaos which followed the departure of the British upon independence,
his uncle - who is also his step-father - enables him to escape the
country illegally and travel to England. He studies at some college or
other, getting by with washing dishes in a cheap restaurant. He meets
Emma, a beautiful young student with a temporary job as waitress, and she
actually likes him, even falls in love with him, the dark-skinned illegal
immigrant. There are funny scenes when they visit Emma's very conservative
parents. Especially when they announce that Emma has become pregnant. Yet
she refuses to marry him, scoffing at such old-fashioned, bourgeois
values. This part of the story takes place around 1970. Neither the
Wikipedia nor the Guardian in their descriptions of the author, the Nobel
Prize Laureate, say much about his private life. Is he married? Does he
But to return to the story, the narrator, as with the
author, returns to Zanzibar after almost 20 years of self-imposed exile,
uncertain of his reception. After all, as with all those poor people who
were living behind the Iron Curtain of Europe in those days, it was
illegal to leave the country. But happily the Iron Curtain imprisoning the
people of Zanzibar fell when it amalgamated itself with Tanganyika, thus
freeing the country from Communism after only a short, but violent
interlude. The narrator is warmly greeted by his family. His mother tells
him all about his history. His biological father, Abbas, was a poor school
teacher, and one day he simply left, leaving the mother in the lurch. It
was a disgrace for the whole family. A taboo subject, only resolved when
his uncle married his mother. The rumor was that Abbas had gone to sea,
perhaps ended up in England. Who knows?
Our narrator has not told the family about Emma and his
daughter. They are strict Muslims and are in the process of arranging a
marriage for him with a beautiful young woman who plans on studying
medicine in England after marriage to our unfortunate narrator. She had
thought that he was a professor at an English university (as was the
author), but in fact he is just a teacher at an inner-city school where he
is a failure, giving him a "buggered" heart and perhaps just a few years
to live. You can imagine what happens when he finally reveals the secret
to his family. And Emma, who now teaches at an English university, no
longer seems to love him.
When I downloaded this book there were only two of
Gurnah's novels listed at Amazon. But having finished it, I see that there
are suddenly at least another 5 or 6. Together with the very comfortable
Nobel Prize Money, the author can now live well beyond the means of his
professorial pension. But looking at the short descriptions of the plots
of those novels, most seem to be about people leaving Zanzibar, or at
least East Africa, in the chaos of independence. Are they all the same
story, told in different ways, or is this a false impression gained from
skimming over these Amazon blurbs?
Looking through the descriptions of Gurnah's books, I
settled on this one. A man who years ago migrated to England, married, had
two children who are now grown up; is sick and in the process of dying,
but still withholds some sort of secret from his family. A happy choice!
The man is Abbas, the father of the narrator of the previous book, and we
learn all about his story, filling in many of the details which had been
left up in the air.
As we had learned in the last book, Abbas was studying
to be a teacher in Zanzibar. That must have been in the 1950s. His family
was very poor. The father thought education was just a way of being lazy,
avoiding work on the family farm plot. Yet Abbas' brothers, who were not
able to escape the hard regimen of the father, saw to it that Abbas was
able to attend the local elementary school. Then he stayed with relatives
in town to attend college. He had a tiny cell with a window which was a
mere slit in the wall, through which he could only see the adjacent
balcony where his future wife, the mother of the hero of the previous
book, sat alone in the evenings. Her family was comparatively wealthy. The
brothers each had their own cars. She was a poor relative staying with
them. And so by means of an intrigue they suddenly forced Abbas to marry
her. The wife was soon pregnant, and Abbas was surprised at how advanced
the pregnancy was after only a few months of marriage. He suspected that
the child was not his. Then one day he managed to escape, finding an
opportunity to get into a boat which took people onto a ship which was
anchored somewhat offshore. He stowed away, was found, and was not thrown
overboard. Instead he was made to do menial chores, and eventually he
became a sailor, working on ships for the next 10 or 15 years.
During a period on shore, at the English port of
Exeter, he met Maryam, an 18 year old girl who was a foundling - abandoned
by her mother in a basket somewhere on the street; the police were unable
to identify the parents. She had some African as well as English ancestry
and she had spent her childhood being shunted from one foster home to the
next. So she and Abbas moved on, far away, to Norwich, loving each other,
but Abbas always avoiding any details of his African past. If the question
ever came up he would simply say that he was a Monkey from East Africa and
change the subject.
The book is much more serious than Admiring Silence.
No jokes. Somewhat heavy going at the beginning before picking up in the
middle. We follow the two children in long chapters. How they feel
deprived of something, knowing that their father has a secret past which
he refuses to tell them about. How this distorts their lives.
Abbas has fallen into a coma. Will he simply die
without telling his secret? But then he does regain some speech and starts
to tell Maryam everything. She is angry. He is a bigamist. Her marriage
was illegal. But for Abbas, who grew up in a Moslem society, men can have
more than one wife. Is that evil? And what of his family in Zanzibar? Will
Maryam or the two children, seek them out? And then a retired police
officer tells them who Maryam's mother probably was. The family had
immigrated to Australia shortly after Maryam had been abandoned as a
newborn baby. Many loose ends and grounds for further speculations on the
ins and outs of life; leading to further novels?
The subtitle is: We Are the Prey.
What are we to make of this extraordinary wave of
hysteria which we are now being forced to live through? During the Black
Death of the 14th century, or the Plague Years of the 17th century, it was
not the case that the average age of those dying of the plague was greater
than 80 years; greater than the age when most people die even in healthy
years. What a strange thing this modern plague is. Is it a plague which lengthens
the span of life? And then, as part of the hysteria, the people in power
are trying to force everybody to be injected with artificially produced
genetic substances which they call "vaccines". The effect of these
substances - if they have any effect at all on the "plague" - wears off
after a couple of months so that an unending sequence of injections is
proposed that everybody will be required to take every few months. The
rate of adverse events is apparently enormous. It is said that those who
do not comply are to be locked up in their houses indefinitely, or at
least until they submit to this system of endless injections.
I still find it hard to believe that the world has
fallen into such madness.
This book describes the people behind the madness and
what they have been doing for the past 20 years or more. It is full of
references - there are more than a thousand - and the text is
correspondingly long and dense, often repetitive, so that I skimmed
through much of it.
There are many who say that this Covid thing is a mere
illusion. If we subtract the people who have been willfully murdered: put
into a coma and attached to a ventilator which blows out the lungs, or
given lethal doses of experimental medicines, then the mortality figures
are no different than those of a usual flu season. But as the authors of
this book show, Covid is indeed a real disease, despite the fact that it
is incomparably less virulent than the plague. It was constructed in the
biological warfare laboratories of the USA and China. The scientists
involved naïvely and openly published their results, taking out patents,
so that everything can be clearly followed.
Should I go on describing the madness? The people who
are amassing huge power and wealth? We have that little man, Anthony
Fauci, squirming in all his contradictions, following the orders of his
master, "Bill": William Henry Gates III. A year or two ago I read in the
paper that "Bill"'s wife Melinda was divorcing him. Could it be that she
was tired of seeing her name dragged into the corruption of the Gates
But enough of this. Hopefully it will go away when a
majority of people, after being forced to be injected with their fifth,
sixth, seventh... "booster" shots, finally wake up and just say NO!
Desertion, by Abdulrazak Gurnah
The book begins with a story which takes place around
the year 1900. Somewhere north of Mombasa in East Africa, on the coast. A
white man staggers into a village, half dead, and is taken to the house of
a shopkeeper. The District Commissioner of the British colonial
administration is summoned and he brings the man to his spacious house in
town, letting him recover and tell his story. He had been on an expedition
with a party of Englishmen, traveling in the interior of Africa, but he
had become disgusted with their primitive ways, killing everything which
came in their way. And so he left them, accompanied by a few porters who
soon robbed him and left him for dead. Then, when he went back to the
shopkeeper's house to thank the family, he fell in love with the
shopkeeper's sister. And so he and she lived together for a time in an
apartment in Mombasa, to the horror of her relatives, and to the
understanding disapproval of the District Commissioner.
Suddenly this story ends without telling us how it ends
and a new story begins, placed in the 1950s in Zanzibar. It is about two
brothers and their family. What has this story to do with the first story?
Is this a book of disjointed, but longish short stories? The younger
brother does well at school, obtains a scholarship and travels to England
where he eventually becomes a professor of literature at a university in
the south of England. The older brother remains in Zanzibar and falls in
love with a beautiful woman, somewhat older than himself. She is said to
be divorced and is the lover of a prominent politician during the chaos of
independence. Yet she loves the brother and he loves her beyond
everything. They meet secretly as often as possible in her private
apartment through the evenings. Yet they are found out. And years later he
tells us about his empty, meaningless life life. In another long section
the brother in England tells us about his life, his English wife whose
existence he has kept a secret from the family in Zanzibar. But she leaves
him. In the end we find out that the first story has everything to do with
the two brothers. And the professor, whose life had also become empty and
meaningless, is suddenly caught up in a surprising twist of fate.
It was one of those books where we live in the story of
a family, over generations. Wonderfully written.
Paradise, by Abdulrazak Gurnah
This one takes place in the early 1900s. It must be
before the first world war in Tanganyika - German East Africa - since
there is a German colonial officer marching about with a troop of natives,
violently enforcing order. Yet one of the characters - an Indian - has a
truck which is so old that it is in need of constant repair, so it must be
just a year or two before 1914.
We follow the adventures of Yusuf, just a young boy at
the beginning of the story, who is perhaps 10 years old. He is living with
his parents who have a sort of general store, somewhere in the interior of
Tanganyika, not too far from the coast. They are regularly visited by
"Uncle" Aziz, a merchant who comes with a whole caravan of people, passing
through. Suddenly Yusuf is told that he is to accompany Aziz to a town
near the coast. It's an adventure. But in reality his father has
accumulated debts, and Yusuf is now to work for Aziz as a kind of
He works in a shop next to Aziz's house with its
enclosed garden and mysterious occupants. He is together with an older
boy, or young man. And so life goes on for a few years; Yusuf becomes an
attractive youth and Aziz decides to have him take part in the next annual
expedition into the interior of Africa, away from the civilized coast
where life is ruled by the laws of Islam and where the people speak
Swahili or Arabic.
Moving from one tribe to the next, over the mountains
and through the Great Lakes regions, the local chiefs demand more and more
in tribute, becoming dangerously aggressive, and Uncle Aziz's supplies
dwindle. Through all of this we sense that Aziz is grooming Yusuf to
eventually lead these expeditions in the future. The goal is to obtain
ivory in exchange for farming tools, cloths, trinkets. In earlier days,
slaves were the desired goods. Finally, upon reaching the very innermost
Heart of Africa, a brutal chief confiscates everything and imprisons
everybody, threatening to kill them. But for some reason the beautiful
Yusuf is brought into the inner sanctum where he lays in a hut and is
administered to by a beautiful young maiden who also lays beside him,
while Aziz and all the others cower outside in the hot sun for days at
spear point. The situation is saved by the German colonial officer,
marching in to restore order. Goods are returned and the party retreats in
peace back to civilization.
The expedition was a catastrophe. Aziz himself is in
debt. Strange things happen in the house. There are rumors of a massive
stash of rhinoceros horns somewhere out in the bush. And then native
troops come through, loyal to the Germans, taking all young men to be
soldiers in their army. Yusuf at first hides, but then runs to them, from
one form of bondage to another.
I was reminded of Naipaul's book, A Bend in the
River, where we are told that in Africa one must be part of a group,
a tribe. Even slavery is better than being alone, unprotected. Contrast
this with the modern world of the Great Reset with people being forced
into socially distanced isolation, cowering in fear before their
television sets and "smart" phones which they think of as being a new kind
By the Sea, by Abdulrazak Gurnah
The story takes place in the modern world of today -
or at least yesterday, before the Great Reset. An older man, Saleh Omar,
enters England illegally, flying in but without a visa, using an assumed
name, Rajab Shaaban Mahmud, and false papers. He comes, of course, from
Zanzibar. He is 65 years old - rather old for an asylum seeker - although
looking back from my own, more advanced age, 65 seems relatively young.
The person he bought the papers and his airline ticket from told him to
pretend not to be able to speak English. The officials at the airport are
civilized, and he is put in some sort of asylum facility. He is then dealt
with by a rather dynamic woman, Rachel, who is responsible for looking
after asylum seekers. He lands in a rather unsatisfactory house with an
opinionated landlady and a couple of other asylum seekers. Gradually he
finds it to be tedious to continue pretending not to understand English
when they talk about him. And so finally, speaking with Rachel, he
confesses. She is at first angry, but then she is very much on his side
without knowing the details of his problems. She is a real friend, helping
him in all ways to have his application approved and to make him feel
comfortable in England. All of this is fun to read. A lighthearted joke
here and there. A book about asylum.
But while Rachel still believed Saleh - or rather Rajab
- was ignorant of the English language, she organized to have someone come
to act as a translator. Someone by the name of Latif Mahmud, who is a
professor of literature at an English university. After learning that
Saleh could actually speak to her, she then cancelled the proposed
translation meeting. But Saleh wonders if he really knows who this Latif
Mahmud is. Is it someone he had known years ago in Zanzibar? And Latif is
astonished by the name Rachel has given him over the telephone: Rajab
Shaaban Mahmud. After all, that was the name of his father... He suspects
who this old man really is.
Latif decides to find out, traveling from London to
confront this man who he believes he knows. Indeed, Latif's story is that
Saleh was a well-to-do shop owner who, by means of evil, selfish
machinations cheated his family out of their house, leaving the father
destitute who then became an embittered (Islamic) religious fanatic from
whom Latif escaped to England years ago. But gradually, step by step,
Saleh tells him what really happened. It is a fascinating story of
intrigues, falsities; and Latif must revise what he remembers of his
childhood memories. We imagine the chaos of post-colonial Zanzibar. They
come together, becoming friends, sharing their loneliness. In the end we
find out why Saleh, the apparently prosperous shopkeeper, must flee the
country and the vicious residue of anger in Latif's Zanzibar relatives.
This is not a book about young, dislocated North
African men seeking asylum and a questionable life in Europe. Nor is it
about Syrian refugees from an endless war instigated by the United States.
Instead it is about chaos and injustice in post-colonial times and the
reluctant admission of some of the inhabitants of the earlier colonies -
the Commonwealth of Nations - into the Mother Country.