I’ve hooked up a tape deck and am enjoying old cassette tapes, many of which I’m finding to have been stopped at the ends of my favorite songs, just as I left them twenty years ago. All I have to do is hit rewind for a few seconds, and I can pick up where I left off, like nothing has happened in the interim.
During a 2004 visit to Virginia to see my grandma, I dropped in at the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News and stumbled onto the USS Monitor turret in a desalinating pool in the back. I knew the turret had been raised two years earlier but didn’t know where it was.
It was very odd to behold the storied artifact that I’d seen countless times since childhood in paintings or primitive photographs. In such contexts, it was History. Now, it was a nondescript hunk of metal in an oversize kiddie pool in a junkyard. The weather was gray and misty, and there was no one around. I had the Monitor all to myself, and I tried to commune with it, to sense the History emanating from it, as it always did in books.
However, I felt nothing. With no long-dead naval officers posing around it for a long-dead photographer, enshrouded in no oil-painted smoke from its battle with the Merrimack, the Monitor turret was stripped of its ancientness. It wasn’t really History. How could it have been? It was right in front of me, part of the inglorious present tense. I could even take this cheap picture of it.
So of course, I went and did it: After looking around to make sure no one was watching, I reached into the tank and put my fingers on the rusted metal, hoping that the thrill of transgression would approximate the elusive thrill of touching the past. Maybe it did, because it sure felt icky. In fact, after only one second of contact, I became terrified that a skeleton hand would grab me by the wrist and pull me in, and I yanked my hand out of the water as fast as I could.
I shuddered. My teeth chattered. Was that the sensation I’d wanted?
I wiped my hand on my jeans and went in to the gift shop.
This book makes it clear, for anyone who needed to be convinced in the early 1800s, that slavery was cruel and violent, for Mr Grimes is repeatedly beaten, mostly for offences he didn’t commit, as his word is routinely disbelieved by his oppressors. It also proves that slavery was a poor way to maintain the purity of the races, were that an object, because Grimes himself was born of a slave mother and a white father.
A few other things stand out. First, whenever wages are mentioned, they often seem to have been higher in the unfree South than in the free North — but then again, it is unclear how much Grimes’s masters deduct for letting him out to work for wages. After escaping to the North, it seems that Grimes is scrambling to work for less money — but then again, he is able to amass a four-figure savings. Second, although he changes masters at least ten times while a slave, the white people involved usually ask his approval for each transaction; I can’t recall if he ever withholds it. On one occasion, he asks to be sold, and his master is offended and angry but complies. Third, after reaching the North, Grimes seems constantly to be in court, to claim wages, to clear himself of libel, and otherwise to gain redress against people who misuse him. The litigiousness of life in Connecticut, and Grimes’s ability to avail himself of the courts, is striking.
The writing is pithy. In a preamble addressed “To the Public,” Grimes asserts that “The condition of the slave…is painful and unfortunate and will excite the sympathy of all who have any.” (29) Toward the end, Grimes attempts to deal with slavery in the abstract, starting with the question of comfort in bondage vs. desperation in freedom: “To say that a man is better off in one situation than another, if in the one he is better clothed and better fed, and has less care than in the other, is false. It is true, if you regard him as a brute, as destitute of the feeling of human nature.” (101) A few lines later, his position becomes ambiguous: He advises slaves against escaping, for the danger and for the apprehension of recapture (Grimes was finally relieved of the latter, when his last master manumitted him in exchange for most of his accumulated money and property); but he then states that, in spite of being “cheated, insulted, abused, and injured” in the North, he has been able to “get along here as well as anyone who is poor and in a situation to be imposed on.” (101-102)
The integrity of the family seems to fare as badly in freedom as under slavery, for Grimes mentions that his wife joined the gold rush in California, leaving him in Connecticut.
Inheritance from Mother is a two-part novel: Part I is almost entirely a flashback, describing protagonist Mitsuki’s mother’s prolonged decline and intercutting scenes of their relationship; Part II takes place at a resort hotel, where Mitsuki has gone to figure out what to do about her unhappy marriage (and it also contains many flashbacks). Part II was more pleasant for me to read, since I like hotel settings and internal dialogue in which characters figure out what to do.
The latter part contains one of the best portraits of relationship disappointment I’ve ever read:
As she sang, she felt enveloped in the peculiar bliss of singing – the sense that, at least for that fleeting moment, the world is in harmony.
She was halfway through the first verse when Tetsuo quietly left her side and walked slowly off to the pier.
‘The ship’s whistle sobbing, a flutter of cherry petals.’ She sang on alone, watching his figure grow smaller.
That was the first ‘why’ of her married life.
She herself was fond of hearing others sing at the chansonnier. Her past boyfriends had enjoyed hearing her sing. And Tetsuo was her husband – shouldn’t he listen gladly? This precise thoughts had not come to her at the time, but she had felt a voiceless cry tear through her, like an echo from the bottom of a deep well. (275-276)
Like Haruki Murakami, Mizumura includes copious references to Western music and literature, yet she also, without becoming nativist or reactionary, expresses resentment at the general degradation and sense of trauma that has accompanied Westernization.
Of course, culture flows both ways, and for every Mizumura character reading Madame Bovary, there is a Westerner like me reading Mizumura. On the subject of world literature, it seems to me that Japanese writers best capture the essence of modern bourgeois life: culturally amalgamated, materialist, and reflective, if not spiritual. Perhaps I am reading different literatures in search of different facets of the human experience in time. If Japanese novels are the best representations of the present, it is in European (especially Hungarian) literature that I find the most homesick remembrances of the past. American literature is where I turn for liberating visions of the future – which seem, ironically, to have been most vivid in the past.
(Maybe this last observation explains why I set my great American novel in seventeenth-century China.) At any rate, I will enjoy reading all of Mizumura’s books.
This is the second book by Mór (a.k.a. Maurus) Jókai that I’ve read, after Poor Plutocrats. I enjoyed The Baron’s Sons at least as much, simply because it is well written, with incisive words and a general strategy of understatement; and it is well translated (by P.F. Bicknell). The story of three sons’ fates in the Hungarian revolution of 1848 is absorbing and politically exciting.
In my continuing attempt to understand why I enjoy Hungarian literature as much as I do (and as I continue to enjoy it), I am beginning to detect, in addition to its appealing wistfulness, a certain focus on honor. It is by no means as obsessive (and pathological) as something one would expect in ancient Greek tales, and it may actually be a little tongue in cheek. In Miklos Banffy’s The Transylvania Trilogy (I forget which volume, though it could have been the first), the protagonist, Balint, is compelled to fight a silly and ultimately harmless duel with someone. In The Baron’s Sons, brothers Richard and Ödön have a contest of honor of sorts, which ends with a hug and with Richard telling Ödön, “I’m very angry with you.”
I hope I never run out of books by Jókai, and I’ll keep reading Hungarian novels, even if I never figure out why I like them.
Robert Graves’ book (retitled The Golden Fleece) is an argument for the historicity of the Argonauts’ voyage, as he explains in the afterword. The result is a passable adventure story, with a somewhat two-dimensional portrait of human nature.
Those who urge us to read the Classics claim that they contain valuable lessons on human nature, but I find myself dissatisfied by the limited aspects of human nature that they reveal. In Hercules, My Shipmate (as in The Odyssey, I recall), all the characters seem to be consumed by pride (in many cases simply an obsession with virility bordering on machismo) and divided from each other by religious and cultural differences. Consequently, life is shown to be nasty, brutish, and short, with few exceptions. In other words, the lessons on human nature imparted in classical tales soon become monotonous.
A comparison with Shakespearean tragedy is instructive. In Shakespeare’s plays, tragic flaws are personal. In the Classics, they are cultural. In the first pages of Macbeth, it becomes clear that Macbeth suffers from ambition but that Banquo does not. Macbeth thus stands out. In the Classics, all mankind suffers from ambition, as well as from avarice, machismo, lust, and the whole panoply of vices. Some variation is evident in talent – he’s a good archer and she’s a good runner – but not in morality; and all are equally subject to Fate.
One special observation about Hercules, My Shipmate: Whereas today’s writers are discouraged from including extraneous detail, Graves packs it all in. The following passage is typical:
Then [Hercules] marched against Neleus, the baleful brother of Pelias, who lived at Sandy Pylos and had sent troops to the help of Augeas; he killed Neleus and all his sons, except the boy Nestor (who lived to take part in the siege of Troy), and did not even hesitate to attack the Priest of Hades, who entered the battle disguised as a skeleton in the hope of striking a superstitious dread in his heart. Hades had been the enemy of Hercules ever since Hercules had robbed him of Alcestis, the wife of Admetus; but Hercules, undismayed, threw the jaw-bone of a sow at him and wounded him in the side. In this battle fell the Argonaut Periclymenus… (437)
But for all that, the book is engaging, and the fate of Jason (which strikes me as a prototype for that of Meriwether Lewis) is illustrated very symbolically, in a way I’m not likely to forget.
The protagonist of Imre Kertész’s Fatelessness is so congenitally rational that he manages to justify every aspect of his suffering. Interned at the Zeitz labor camp during World War Two, Georg Koves at one point drops a bag of cement.
The bag’s paper had burst and the contents spilled out, leaving a heap of the material, the treasure, the costly cement, powdering the ground. By then he was already on me, I had already felt his fist on my face, then, having been decked, his boot on my ribs and his grip on my neck as he pressed my face to the ground, in the cement, screaming insanely that I scrape it together, lick it up. He then hauled me to my feet, swearing he would teach me: [‘I’ll show you, asshole, shithead, goddam Jew-dog,’] so I would never drop another bag again in the future. From then on, he personally loaded a new bag onto my shoulders each time it was my turn, bothering himself with me alone; I was his sole concern, it was me exclusively whom he kept his eye on, following me all the way to the truck and back, and whom he picked to go first even if, by rights, there were others still ahead of me in the queue. In the end, there was almost an understanding between us, we had got the measure of one another, and I noticed his face bore what was almost a smile of satisfaction, encouragement, even, dare I say, a pride of sorts, and from a certain perspective, I had to acknowledge, with good reason, for indeed, tottering, stooping though I might have been, my eyes seeing black spots, I did manage to hold out, coming and going, fetching and carrying, all without dropping a single further bag, and that, when it comes down to it, I would have to admit, proved him right. (169-170)
The tortuous interrupters throughout Georg’s narrative – “I have to admit,” “unless I’m mistaken,” “truth be told,” etc. – are typical of his overriding devotion to objectivity. Seeking always to accept any given situation as reasonable, Georg is incapable of influencing it. Indeed, his resistance to impulsiveness is absolute. When, shortly after his initial arrest, he might have had a chance to slip away, he decides against it:
I became alive to the sudden flash of a piece of yellow clothing up ahead, in the cloud of dust, noise, and vehicle exhaust fumes: it was ‘Traveler.’ A single long leap, and he was off to the side, lost somewhere in the seething eddy of machines and humanity. I was totally dumbfounded; somehow it did not tally with his conduct at the customs post, as I saw it. But there was also something else that I felt, a sense of happy surprise I might call it, at the simplicity of an action; indeed, I saw one or two enterprising spirits then immediately make a break for it in his wake, right up ahead. I myself took a look around, though more for the fun of it, if I may put it that way, since I saw no other reason to bolt, though I believe there would have been time to do so; nevertheless my sense of honor proved the stronger. The policemen took immediate action after that, and the ranks again close around me. (55-56)
Georg is a prisoner of his own nature or perhaps his fate. Later in the book, Georg suggests that fate is the opposite of freedom. “If there is such a thing as fate, then freedom is not possible….If there is such a thing as freedom, then there is no fate.” (259-260)
So why is the book called Fatelessness, when it seems to be about fate? Perhaps the implication is that the latter is only an excuse for the former. When Georg says, “I took the steps, no one else, and I declared that I had been true to my given fate throughout,” (259) is he admitting that his “declaration” had always been false, that he took all of his steps freely, even as each step took him closer to Auschwitz, Zeitz, and Buchenwald?
“We ourselves are fate, I realized all at once….All that was needed was to admit it, meekly, simply, merely as a matter of reason, a point of honor.” (260)
Though freedom and equality are the warp and woof of American life, some difference of opinion exists as to how to they are related. For example, the argument between the political left and right may be viewed as one of ends versus means, with those on the left believing that equality is the key to freedom and those on the right believing the opposite.
In Mary Renault’s The Last of the Wine, a remark made by Lysis suggests another relationship between freedom and equality:
I want a City where I can find my equals and respect my betters, whoever they are.
In other words, equality is a subset of freedom: the freedom to recognize our equals (and betters) without having them recognized for us.
It’s interesting that while searching for his equals and betters, Lysis mentions no inferiors. Perhaps he is conscious that he lives surrounded by people possessing talents he lacks, and that absent an unfree system of imposed social classes, designed to denigrate most talent as menial, the notion of inferiority is meaningless. Thus does Melville’s Ahab, in contemplation of his ship’s carpenter, lament, “Here I am, proud as a Greek god, and yet standing debtor to this blockhead for a bone to stand on!” More acceptingly, I reflect that when I summon a plumber to my house, the very reason for my doing so is that he can do at least one thing I cannot. In him, therefore, and in enjoyment of the freedom imagined by Lysis, I see only an equal or a better.
The next scene foreshadows the meeting of the hero and heroine. The image is by Satomi Kamei.
Watching Nanjing fume from the sky or from the ground, neither Peng bird nor human would have noticed the elderly nun on a donkey cart making her way through the smog from Cock-Crow Temple on the north side of town to outside Treasure Gate, the southernmost portal of the city wall. Though missiles whizzed by her, she maintained her dignity, as did her cart driver, who seemed to have absorbed a bit of her gravitas. The nun was called One-Eyed Jingang, for partially blinding herself while studying the Diamond (Jingang) Sutra, and she was Cock-Crow Temple’s abbess. While unaccompanied women raised eyebrows if they ventured abroad on most days, the Spring Festival provided One-Eyed Jingang not only with the cover of smoke but also with an excuse to be out, for clergy were often called upon to offer prayers for the New Year. In fact, One-Eyed Jingang was expected at another place of worship, a monastery named the Temple at the Edge of Heaven, where a prayer meeting was planned for that morning. Before the chanting began, however, she wished to consult with the abbot on a matter of some delicacy.
Arriving at the Temple, One-Eyed Jingang alighted from the cart, paid its driver a little extra for the New Year, walked through the main gate, and ascended the stairway to the Mahayana Pavilion, where the abbot, whose dharma name was Baichi Shi’ai, or “Idiot in the Service of Love,” greeted her with ebullient good cheer. Fearless of gossip, he invited the nun into his office.
“Wisdom to you,” he saluted her, offering some tea. “Big Sister is a bit early. Have you come to help me choose today’s reading?”
“No, Big Brother,” the abbess returned, as she sat down on a stool. “I’m sure you’ve already found something appropriate. As it turns out, I’ve come to discuss something…inappropriate.”
She placed on Baichi Shi’ai’s desk the bulging sack she’d been carrying, which the abbot had assumed to be filled with boxed or string-bound folios of sutras. She untied the twine at its neck, just as somebody in the neighborhood set off another string of firecrackers like a drumroll.
The sack fell away, revealing a statuette of the Guanyin Bodhisattva, sculpted from rosewood. The carving stood about a foot tall, but its subject did not stand, nor did she sit cross-legged in stolid meditation. Rather, she lolled in a sultry position with one leg arched upward at a right angle, her arm draped over her knee. Although she was Guanyin, the Goddess of Compassion, she posed in the style of Tara, Mother of Liberation; but whatever compassion or liberation she offered her worshippers, it was of a primal, physical sort. Her sexuality was total, not of parts. It sprang not from flaring hips or curvaceous breasts but from her unworldly air of assurance and utter lack of inhibition. Against all convention, this Guanyin held her eyes open, inviting her faithful to advance and be saved. A mandorla of fire radiated from her body, a manifestation of the power of her love.
Baichi Shi’ai knew better than to resist the goddess’s charms. Instead, he gave rein to his native enthusiasm. “Oooh! Hail, Guanyin Bodhisattva!” he crowed.
“Yes, she does rather demand devotion,” observed One-Eyed Jingang. “I’m surprised you haven’t fallen to your knees.”
“Whose hands crafted such a powerful image?” asked the abbot. “Or was it a bolt of lightning striking a grateful tree that did the work?”
“Actually, it was created by one of my novices, a brilliant girl. Always reading, trying her hand at something new. I noticed her chiseling away at a hunk of wood from that old column we had replaced and decided to give her a bit of rosewood to see what she could do with better material. This is the result.”
Baichi Shi’ai nodded, still absorbed in Guanyin’s smoldering expression. “Where will you display it?” he asked, after a while.
“Display it?” the abbess exclaimed. “Good brother! It’s hard enough to protect the reputation of my convent without having something like that on a pedestal. Why give the next scandalmonger a chance to start yapping about the ‘lewd nuns of Cock-Crow Temple’?”
Baichi Shi’ai rounded his mouth. “Oh? You think this Guanyin is lewd?”
“No, I do not, but a lewd man would, and I’m tired of hearing lewd men talk nonsense about decent nuns.” One-Eyed Jingang cleared her throat. “So I was hoping that you, Teacher, would take this Guanyin off my hands.”
“And keep her here?” the abbot giggled. “My monks would explode! Even if I hid her away, they would sniff her out like tom cats.”
“You have that little faith in your brothers?”
“I have that much faith in my brothers.”
One-Eyed Jingang slumped. “Yes, I suppose we face the same difficulty. Since our calling is to free people from desire, it’s bad policy to introduce an object of desire into either of our sanctuaries. So what should we do with it?”
Baichi Shi’ai grinned. “You talk as though she were a problem to be gotten rid of, but Guanyin Bodhisattva cannot be a problem. Yes, neither of our temples is the proper place for her, but remember: Guanyin embodies compassion for the world.” He raised both his arms, in an encompassing gesture. “Let’s put her out into the world, then, where her compassion can do its work. If some starry-eyed lad falls in love with her, so much the better. Everyone in the world needs to be receptive to compassion, after all.”
One-Eyed Jingang thought for a bit and then nodded. “Yes, Brother, you are right. We should allow this Guanyin to play her part. I will consign her to the marketplace, to await the first receptive soul that comes along.”
She put the Guanyin back in its sack and tied it closed.
“So what will be today’s reading?” she asked, but her host didn’t answer, and both devotees of dharma continued to stare at the enshrouded idol for a long time.
An earlier posting describes my first Chinese New Year’s celebration in Taiwan, in which I saw the streets of Taipei transformed into a veritable shooting gallery of bottle rockets. That memorable experience was one of the many inspirations for my novel, Southern Rain, which opens with this pyrotechnic description of the first day of the year. The time corresponds to February 1644 on the Western calendar.
It is the seventeenth year of the Chongzhen Emperor’s reign, the first day of the first month – Spring Festival – and smoke is rising over Nanjing, as its people celebrate the New Year by lighting things on fire.
Half the city’s population are setting off firecrackers, to the delight of the other half. In groups of young and old, they hang clusters of the paper-wrapped cylinders like bunches of red bananas from the eaves of temples and taverns. With the touch of an incense stick, the fuse commences to hiss and everybody scatters. If someone chances to round the corner unawares, on his way to visit relatives, he comes abreast of the little bombs the moment they begin to explode and finds himself engulfed in a thundering maelstrom. His chest thumps like a kettle drum hammered by madmen. He flails his arms about his head and staggers away as the crescendo continues, a blur of incandescence hanging in the air near which he passed, casting billows of smoke heavenward. Then, as the last charge on the string gives up its ghost and the echo rolls over the city and disappears into the hills, the celebrants clap and jump for joy, and even the rattled pedestrian grins and waves, signifying no hard feelings. He too is enjoying himself.
In addition to the hanging clusters, some firecrackers can be thrown, and some are miniature rockets. Explosives of these sorts transform Nanjing’s streets and alleys into gauntlets of spark-trailing missiles, air bursts, and ground bursts. Young boys in particular are fond of launching pocket rockets from their hands, to watch them ricochet off buildings and passersby. Their favorite targets are peddlers on donkey carts, because they pretend nothing is happening. They go right on hawking their snacks – “Steamed buns! Dumplings!” – while projectiles bounce off their bellies or lodge in the folds of their robes, sending sparks cascading from their torsos. The pinnacle of fun is to toss a cherry-bomb into the street, timed to explode when a cart passes over it. There it lies, its fuse sizzling, while, say, the noodle-man approaches, crooning “Thick noodles! Thin noodles! Sesame paste! Black bean paste!” and just as his cart reaches it, Bang! off it goes in a cloud of sulfur. Both man and beast jolt from the concussion but emerge unfazed, the peddler resuming his hawking, the donkey his hauling, showing no sign of distress. Onlookers beam and the young pyrotechnicians make ready the next barrage.
Not all that is set alight that day contains gunpowder. Nanjing’s denizens also burn joss paper – play money – as offerings to the gods or to their deceased ancestors. Clan after clan of them, Chens, Wangs, and Zhangs, gather in their kitchens or courtyards to burn wad after wad of the heavenly currency, which takes to the air in particulate form. The offering of joss paper is less likely than fireworks to involve the occasional victim, unless it takes place on the ground floor of a storied building and some poor soul is caught upstairs. In such a case, the unfortunate one, as soon as he realizes he is suffocating, makes a desperate dash to the nearest window and thrusts his head outside. Gasping for oxygen, not even this man complains but rejoices in the good cheer and bonhomie of festival time.
Thus does Nanjing exude mirth and merriment, acrid, dark, and thick. Smoke rises over Cock-Crow Temple, a nunnery on a hill. Smoke curls about the Drum Tower, whose beating of the time that day is drowned out in the din. Smoke mushrooms over Three Mountain Street, Nanjing’s always-bustling bazaar. Smoke hangs above the Qinhuai River, its famous pleasure quarter. Every tiled roof, every bridge and pagoda, every curvy street and winding canal is enveloped in haze. To the gigantic Peng bird of legend, soaring far above town on this New Year’s Day, Nanjing might appear as an exquisite incense censer made to resemble a fairyland. To Nanjing’s human residents, the column of smoke dwarfing their city is yet another of its many superlatives; Nanjing wears it like a plumed crown. The vast metropolis, ringed by a wall of eighteen gates, is the pearl of the Yangtze River valley and original capital of the Current Dynasty. It is opulent and lively and crammed with attractions, the subject of rhapsodies by songsters and poets who call it a paradise. If Nanjing’s celebrated “kingly air” is now tinged with ash, its people breathe it in even more deeply and feel all the more regal for it. They are as proud and prosperous as any people have dared to be. In a consuming exuberance, they revel and roister, until their city is choking with smoke.