Book Review: An Artist of the Floating World

This is a rich study of an artist. As with other Kazuo Ishiguro novels, the narrator is unreliable. The action here is in trying to figure out what the narrator believes, what’s artifice, and so how far he is lying to us and himself in the presentation of his thoughts.

This was enjoyable for me because even though the artist–a Japanese painter who served as a propagandist for World War II–technically claims that what he did was morally wrong, you feel that he cannot quite accept that. He is a stubborn, proud man. At the end, the narrator reflects tranquilly on the path his life has taken, like Mr. Stevens at the end of Remains of the Day, but here this is sinister.

“Fisherman” by Yamamoto Kanae 1904

Without fully owning up to what he did, and the consequences of what he did, as well as being cast off by a progressing society that would rather pretend those years didn’t exist, his summing up and self-satisfaction represents an revocation of responsibility. It is an revocation of responsibility, demanded by the rhythms of life, that allows for the sins of the past to be conveniently forgotten.

Book Review: 8.5/10: Ishiguro’s historical novel: Is a man a player in history or does history play him?

Here’s a good piece on the aesthetics in the book and how it is when the artist becomes political does his art degrade:


Nobel Prize for Kazuo Ishiguro

Well, the Nobel Committee got this right! Kazuo Ishiguro wins the Nobel Prize for Literature. I have been a fan of this British writer since high school. The Nobel Press Release is simply:

The Nobel Prize in Literature 2017 was awarded to Kazuo Ishiguro “who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world”.

The “Uncovered the Abyss” line shows that they must have read The Unconsoled the most unconventional and experimental of his books, which I think is one of his best.

Here is a link to a review of his latest work: The Buried Giant.

Book Review: The Woman Warrior

I picked up Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Women Warrior at a local used bookstore. As I went through the pages, I noticed that almost every page had extensive annotations in red, green, and black Sharpie. There were brackets, underlines, circles, and notes. The first page had the name of the previous owner, a New York state campus, and a date “1992.” I purchased it. Reading this book, which is subtitled “Memoirs of a Childhood Among Ghosts,” took longer than a spell at the end of 2016 when I went through a couple in succession. This book took several months. Not because of its length at 209 pages, but because of the author uncompromising method which fights against the signposts we seek in a memoir: an narrator from a future time speaking about the past; a this-then-that chronology; the sketch of the growth of relationships; and all that explanation.

While the subtitle states this book is a collection, it is a memoir. At first, I thought that each story was a segment of the narrator’s life from a different perspective. While it has that in it, each piece starts with the narrator and then segues into another story from or about her aunt, mother, younger aunt: it is storytelling about storytelling. Once all the pieces are read, you start to fill in the gaps a-chronologically but with the guide of context from the collective body of these voices and how they shape and express the narrator’s psyche. I would only realize that the urgency of those annotations from grappling with this maze.

I return to the word uncompromising because Kingston’s vision does not rest. For one, it does not abide by the traditions of Asians in American letters. She sees the transitory state of immigrant not as a recent phenomena, a challenge or fulfillment of to the American ideal, or solely a particular socioeconomic condition, but a state carrying through human history. She does not simply externalize this, but shows through her method how that state also a personal even literary one. It is one thing to be written about and for a story to be told about you. It is one thing even to take advantage of a story for oneself. But only rarely would one wield the power of the immigrant, outsider, or warrior–like the Mulan of this book’s title no less–to bring forth and articulate a new vernacular: true to one’s own and polyglot and American. Here Kingston clasps the hilt.

Book Review: 8/10: A singular memoir that breaks and re-imagines the genre.

Mahatma Jotirao Phule

I picked up a book about Mahatma Jotirao Phule (Caste, Conflict and Ideology: Mahatma Jotirao Phule and Low Caste Protest in Nineteenth-Century Western India) to learn more about education in India pre-Independence. At the end, I learned also about a social reformer who, despite significant material challenges, social resistance, and, at times, weak ideas, began to change how a major portion of Indian society looked at themselves and their destiny. I praise the author Rosalind O’Hanlon for taking up this neglected and important topic and learning Marathi to investigate primary sources. Her wise and adroit manuevering through the delicate and substantive differences between ideologies, communities, and power structures seeks to dissemble false conflations. She expounds their differences while noting their at times coalition in terms of joint protest.

Jyotirao Phule lived during the British Raj in the city of Pune in Maharastra. He received a modest education at missionary schools. He then founded and ran schools for members of the scheduled castes and women who had been denied an education based on social prohibition. His wider role was of a founder of a reformist association. He also served as a spokesman for another association petitioning the British Government for representation in a congress to make their needs plain to the British administration. Previously, Brahmins had monopolized such posts based on their social and religious standing. Phule welcomed British rule as a way to unhinge Brahmanic control over India, but saw the new system was, on the whole, perpetuating the same inequalities as before.

One of the virtues of O’Hanlon’s book how she traces the origin of Phule’s ideas to Indian sources and missionary arguments. Missionaries had linked a Deist conception of God and Nature, the advances of Western science, and the deplorable condition of the majority of Indians under a stagnant and exclusionary religious order maintained by Brahmins. Though he did not convert, he used this linkage to create an alternative history and reinterpretation of major figures in India, such as Shivaji, to emphasize how the contemporary order was primarily a mental oppression by the few who had monopolized learning and religion. One of the weaknesses of Phule’s argument was his unclear reinterpretation of religion. Though Brahmins used this as a basis of authority and some analysis and refutation was needed, I think that he could have stuck to his reformist agenda based upon shared interests of the oppressed rather than wade into a religious debate. If Buddha had called for the abolition of caste more than two thousand years ago, Phule’s ideas about religion and caste had no luck when drawn into this contentious sphere.

O’Hanlon’s book makes you wonder and ask for a book connecting Mahatma Phule’s work with Mahatma Gandhi’s and Ambedkar’s during India’s Independence movement. I think a work like this needs to be in English, given that these conflicts are an every present reality of contemporary India.

Book Review: the Moon over the Mountain

Both Atsushi Nakajima and Haruki Murakami are taught in Japanese high schools. Nakajima is the kind of author that is loved in Japan, but not praised by the Western press and are often ignored outside of Japan if translated at all. You may think it’s because of the subject matter. Instead of liberal protagonists living in post-War Japan, Nakajima goes back to historic and mythic China.

While the text in Japanese is in an elaborate masculine style with an extensive use of Chinese characters, in translation the text is more accessible. Despite the intricate style, Nakajima does not presume a cultural background, but sits at a juncture between East and West. This intertextuality is evident when critters in a bizarre short story promulgate Western philosophies. But this is true also with Nakajima’s orientation: Nakajima is concerned with elemental existential questions and doesn’t seem to operate solely within his cultural milieu nor see his culture as a box or barrier in his quest.

The Moon over the Mountain
The most famous work “Sangetsuki,” or “The Moon over the Mountain,” is a strange tale of a government official who wants to be a poet. His desire, so intense, turns him into a tiger that stalks the mountain country. Some tales with the excessive listing of battles, provinces, leader names, war stratagems, court drama, and battles course with the martial vigor. When he turned historical, Nakajima paid closer attention to facts, but the emotion of his work reflects the time it was written, which is during the brutality of the Japanese occupation of a fractured China during World War II. While this may bear scrutiny of complicity, his best work is when he focuses on the human relationships or individuals trying to make sense of the world and themselves.

The best story is “The Disciple,” a historical tale about Confucius and his disciple Zilu. This story, because of that open intertextuality, expresses the teacher-student tradition common knowledge for those in the Eastern (and Greek) tradition into English. Ironically but truly, Nakajima shows that moral education is not about adhering to strictures, the grasping of the intellect, or performance in the field, but it is a form of love.

Book Review: 7.5/10: Nakajima’s best work are classics of modern world literature

Use of Poetry in Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North

The title of Robert Flanagan’s novel The Deep Road to the Far North is what Japanese soldiers used to call the “Death Railway” to Burma made by Allied POWs under slave conditions. From the novel, it seems like an name given in earnest as this feat was intended to extol the Emperor and spread Japanese culture as exemplified in Basho’s travelogue of the same name. How could this travelogue written in a refined combination of haiku and mannered prose by a Zen Buddhist Japanese author who sought eternity in nature in the later stages of his life and who composed his celebrated haiku during spontaneous moments of union with reality be used to justify a crime against humanity?

Have any of the Imperial soldiers met The Emperor? Who is the Emperor to these soldiers? “The Emperor” in this novel is a literary creation and fixed pattern that is exclusionary and was used to justify any crime that stands in the way of the military objective. In the Christian sense, Emperor worship here is clearly a form of idolatry. It makes the idolater a slave to the image and, by during so, estranged from the reality.

Basho and the other poetry in this book has the same function. When a Japanese soldier wants to recite a poem before executing a POW, he falters because he cannot remember the lines, the pattern. Poetry, such as Basho’s, that was a spontaneous expression of a vision of eternity in nature had been turned into an “object” or a fixed pattern. As such it was treated as an idol against the experience and intention of Basho. A counterexample used in the book is a death poem by Shisui, which is simply a brushstroke of a circle. This poem cannot be turned into a fixed pattern because it is illustrative of an ongoing process. Like Basho, I think this is what Flanagan wants to approach: a description of a human life’s passage in this inevitable process without any fixed patterns, or easy narratives, obscuring reality.

Book Review: Native Speaker

Native Speaker by Chang-Rae Lee is a clear-eyed account of the status of the Asian American in contemporary America. No other book I have read by an American author has so expertly allowed for cultural identity to be a present in the characters without letting the individuals becoming caricatures, stand-ins, or less than human. In the case of one character, a lady from Korea who manages the house named simply Ahjuhma (Aunt), most other authors would have made her a one-note personality. It definitely seems that the character lends herself to that, but in a surprise shift Lee gives her a hidden grace that flows at unexpected, withdrawn moments. No matter how I act or what I say, I have an internal life, I am a person, this character and Lee seems to say.

The narrator is Henry Park, a middle-aged Korean-American who is estranged from his white American wife. During this time, his work, he is a spy for a private intelligence agency, is breaking his cultural allegiances as he was tasked with posing as a helper for a prominent Korean-American politician with an eye to running for Mayor of New York City. It even appears as if the politician is an alter-ego of the main protagonist. And Henry’s employers, white men, relish as they see Henry take down a man who would demonstrate that Korean-Americans are not foreigners in their own country.

Maybe a little too obvious, (this was Lee’s first novel), his job and his task are metaphors for the status of Asian American in the nineties (when the book is written and set) and today. Asian Americans are enlisted to speak and stand only for their ancestral culture and are sometimes manipulated to turn against other minorities to get ahead. And, while Asian Americans can achieve individual success and familial happiness, for the most part, they cede any social or political notoriety and influence as a price of living in this country.

Throughout the book, the narrator comes to see his life as closer to his father’s than he had thought. This change in consciousness, from a state of rebellion to a sagacity, is perhaps the greatest achievement of this work as we are forced to see his father as less than a grouchy, angry man but more of a pioneer. We come to see his silent pain as more social, economic, and a result of the position he is placed in as an ethnic minority and less of an individual failure. By doing this, Chang-Rae Lee uses his art to unpack privilege.

Book Review: 8.5/10: The best Asian American fiction I have read. 

Book Review: Silence

The novel Silence by Shusaku Endo is set in the Nagasaki during the severe persecution of Christianity in 1600s Japan. With letters, documents, and third-person narration, Silence chronicles the journey of a Jesuit priest Sebastian Rodrigues to corroborate whether his esteemed mentor apostatized during his mission. This novel grips to major questions and does not let go. With some of the existential sharpness of Kierkegaard, Silence is a vehicle to investigate the possibility of cross-cultural communication, endurance, and faith. But it is not an erudite exercise; in his depiction of human frailty and depravity, Endo combines this novel of ideas with the pathos of short, painful lives.

Rodrigues and his mission does seem like Marlow’s trip into the Heart of Darkness. His journey from his native Portugal, stowing away on a boat to Japan, learning about the new culture, and facing a warped doppelganger mirror the structure of Joseph Conrad’s work. In Heart of Darkness, the machine of colonialism is revealed as an elaborate form of the savagery in the Congo. While spreading Catholicism may seem like a parallel, for all their politics, the lone priests have kindness and conviction to lift peasants out of a brutish existence. And in Silence, the brutality of the natives is utterly remorseless, yes, but also intellectually devious. In Endo’s work, the would-be subjects colonize the mind of the colonials and seek to end their movement not by force per se, but by a turn of conscience.

Endo describes Rodrigues’ precarious life in feudal Japan with periods of ease before the inevitable capture. We are almost led to believe that his mission, as one of only a two remaining active priests in this unforgiving land, may succeed. What’s most riveting, however, is when the conflict becomes internal. When he is in dialogue with his captors, at first, he is strong, but he seems to partially agree to their statements, and then seems to have little foundation to stand on. They want to use him to break the resolve of the Japanese Christians holding onto their secret way of life. They want to prove that their beliefs are foreign, could never live inside them, and must be ejected as not Japanese. And these captors could be replaced with Japanese society, specifically, at many other times when authorities were resolute on destroying individual threats to the power structure with bureaucratic rigor. It is an endemic pattern that repeats elsewhere: the goal of the captors brings to mind Winston’s fight against Big Brother in George Orwell’s 1984.

The climax shows the power of a novel to express a change in consciousness. This change is unexpected, but resonates with the narrative. Quite different from what his captors wanted, this change may even show how Christianity is not as foreign as his captives want him to believe. Whether you believe that Rodrigues’ trip had not merely been a fatalistic nightmare–the descriptions of the slow crucifixions of poor people at sea are particularly harrowing–may depend on whether you believe in his mission in the first place. But Endo has made us witness one resolution to the conflict between culture or races. There could be some kind of accommodation or persecution and death.

Book Review: 8.5/10: Shusaku Endo uses a traditional close third person and first-person perspective to uncover the relation between the Japanese thought and Christianity. He endeavors to find not only whether a universal truth is possible for a Japanese person, but whether this faith, tested in extremis, is universally true in itself.

Book Review: The Buried Giant

Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel, his first in ten years, is The Buried Giant (2015)–a provocative crossover between literary fiction and fantasy. It seems like a novel written from a long withheld desire of mine. The Buried Giant is set in post-Roman, post-Arthurian England with magic, gallivanting, pixies, and boatmen: I remember a field trip to replica Saxon villages in Middlesex as a primary school student there and pouring over runes and rhymes in Old English classes in college. This novel goes deep into his philosophical concerns about memory and identity: I remember being wowed as I tried to extrapolate meaning from Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled (1995) in my senior year at high school. To combine these and create a fantasy in the fallen world that not only explores, but triggers understanding of existential themes is a great achievement and, it turns out, a stellar, devastating read.

Kazuo Ishiguro
Kazuo Ishiguro

Axl and Beatrice are an old married couple living in poverty and confinement in a small Briton village. They are aware that they are losing their memory, but they conclude that this is not an individual phenomenon. It seems like others too are forgetting their histories and why they are performing tasks. Early in the novel, they seem to remember that they had a son and that he had traveled to a nearby village. Their constriction and mortality compel them to break the routine of their bodies and search for their son. The novel is a tale of that journey on foot through the damp, forbidding mounds of untamed England country.

This collective phenomenon of the retraction of memory is called the mist. And a pleasure of this book is to see this mist lift for the narrative to reveal itself. But I’ll say this. Their journey on foot, escaping monsters, conversing with witches, witnessing battles, is a trip back through their memory and its stories and its set narratives. They start their journey sure of each other, their marital love, and the promise of their continued union, but that is questioned, tested, and judged in the final pages of the novel. With this shifting, I wonder: what is the use of these set narratives–these memories–if they program us to act a certain way? And not only that, but determine the mental understanding of our identity? Their journey is a reverse Odyssey. While memory loss of Odysseus prevents him from fulfilling his desire to return to his wife, memory itself clouds and casts aspersions on what these partners are to each other.

Release from the demands of memory can be a release from the past and an enabler of growth. But there is a hidden step here. There is the recognition brought on by memory and then the adherence to memory. When a Saxon warrior, who suffers no memory loss due to the mist, tells his acolyte to promise never to forget and to always hate the Britons, he is demanding allegiance to a certain narrative brought on by a collective memory. If there is an ethics of identity, where members of a certain group are ethically required to act in a certain way, then there appears to be an ethics of memory. While adherence may not be necessitated individually or collectively, it takes courage to break the cycle and perceive the world with the story of the past, the promise of the future, but, in the foreground, the light of the present.

Book Review: 8/10: Kazuo Ishiguro has created not a fantasy, but a detective story. The criminal is memory and the victim is who you know you are.

Book Review: One Hundred Years of Solitude

One Hundred Years of Solitude starts with what Colonel Aureliano Buendia would remember as he faces the firing squad–“that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” That beginning sentence clues us in to the strategy of the author Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Bold and telling details are presented to frame the passions, play, sadness, quarrels, wonders, and conflict of daily life. By design, inevitably these episodes circle back and illuminate those details. Discovering ice was the happiest moment of his life. He fought wars upon wars out of arrogance and to spare him from the crippling solitude that afflicted him and the whole Buendia family. As he faces the guns, he thinks of that time when he was free from solitude in whatever form. On “that distant afternoon” the family learns of the death of Melquiades, a gypsy who introduced their landlocked town to the wonders of the wider world.

If the Colonel before the firing squad is an event at the center of the novel, Melquiades and his parchments encircle and preside over the novel as a whole. All this was inlaid in just the first sentence.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The novel is a chronicle of the rise and fall of the Buendias, a family who led a pack of trailblazers to a new territory inland and founded a town Macando, nestled in the swampy rainforest somewhere in South America, which flourishes for a while. In addition to the foreshadowing details, the progeny of the first in line, Jose Arcadio Buendia and Ursula, have names of the previous generations. The progeny exhibit similar patterns as their namesakes, as if those names clued us in to a selfish gene that had to manifest itself. Much has been made about this novel’s magical realism.

Before reading this novel, I was initially wary of it. However, it works because ghosts of family members that live in the house, a girl rising up to Heaven, rain for more than four years, and flying carpets of the gypsies, don’t draw attention to themselves as different from given facts and because this magic isn’t uniformly good or bad. This magic seems to be an expression of desires through time that had been percolating in the minds of the characters-letting them loose into the natural world adds texture.

Click this picture for more resources on this novel
By Pedro Villalba Ospina

One Hundred’s story has military campaigns, adventures, colonial exploitation and extermination and a devastating, revolting picture of decay and oblivion. But any of these isolated would not amount to much but for how Garcia Marquez marshals all these details of the family’s daily life. He spins these through the reader’s mind until the incantatory, blazing end when the saga wraps onto itself-the details and stories illuminating each other become one–and the axle of the wheel of time collapses.

Book Review: 9/10: Fabulous, rich, wonderful trip into the magic and terror of daily life