Tag Archive: fiction

A Not-So-Strange, Sad World

Today’s book is Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.

Ishiguro is one of Britain’s great living writers and I had heard from  many people that I should read this book. So I picked it up earlier this week and settled into one of the more eerie, haunting reads of recent memory.

Never Let Me Go is a study in subtlety. Ishiguro unfurls the story carefully, slowly, in an almost elegatic tone. At its most surface level the story is about three friends, Kathy, Ruth and Tommy, who start off as students in a boarding school, called Hailsham. But right away, you get the sense that this school is no normal school. As Kathy narrates, she notes that she has spent her adult life as a “carer” of “donors” and that eventually all “carers” become “donors.” You get a sense that something is not quite right, but Ishiguro explains this (or shall I say he doesn’t explain it- he leaves the readers to infer it) slowly, carefully– through Kathy we glimpse a world that is strange but also idyllic with children spending hours on art projects, with “guardians” not teachers– and with the itty-bitty infighting that characterizes teenage cliques–the mundane, banal aspects of human life.

Except these children are actually “students” and they are not really human– they are clones that are nurtured to grow up, and die young as their organs are harvested to prolong the lives of “normals”.  You have no sense of the scientists that engineer this horror show, or the outside society that shuns the “students.” Instead,  you realize that the students willingly go along with the plan–there seems to be nothing to force them towards their fates, except their own resigned will. In this way, the book could be classified as sci-fi, but it has none of the traditional trappings of the genre. Instead it is more like a measured study of a dystopian reality– an alternate Britain, that scarily does not look a whole lot different from the world that we currently inhabit.

There is more to the book- especially to the dynamic of the three friends, Ruth the imaginative and pushy, Tommy who is shyer, but prone to fits of temper, and the narrator Kathy’s measured calm- in fact her very voice is distinctive and unnerving, but she is our guide for the journey.  There is so much more, but I will not say more about the actual plot, except that it quietly, unnerves you. Ishiguro is a master of understatement- a master of leaving the reader to infer what it is he really means. He trusts that you will figure out what is going on for yourself, he trusts that you will take something away from the book.

So what is the book really about? In one sense, it warns us of the dangers of science going amuck–or as my father says “Of man playing God” but that is really the most surface understanding of the book. The way I saw Never Let Me Go is that it was really a meditation on hopelessness, morality, repression and the darkness of the human soul. Ishiguro peels away at the reader’s assumptions and  feelings, until you are there, at the end, standing with Kathy in the grey field, feeling the cold, bleakness of it all.  If this sounds grim, then perhaps it is, but this book is deeply affecting and moving– it leaves you unsettled, trying to sift through all the hidden meaning and pain that you are so carefully and subtly confronted with. It is a book that will stay with you for a long time, to ponder and wonder.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

The Silence of God

“The Japanese are not able to think of God completely divorced from man; the Japanese cannot think of an existence that transcends the human.”

This evening I finished Shusaku Endo’s Silence.  Endo, as the translator notes in his preface, is sometimes described as the Japanese Graham Greene, and as I read the story I did notice some similarities to Greene’s The Power and the Glory.  Set in 17th century Japan, the novel follows the story of a Portuguese Christian missionary, Sebastian Rodrigues, who heads for the island with a companion despite the recent outlawing of Christianity and accompanying persecutions.

Endo paints a vivid and stark picture of the perils these missionaries and others like them faced.  To reach the island, they have to sail ashore on a beach rather than at a harbor and under the cover of dark.  The missionaries hide in a small hut in the mountains during the day and minister to the underground Christians only at night.  Travel to another underground Christian village is fraught with danger of discovery and imprisonment.  Moreover, the Japanese government offers a generous reward to those who turn in Christians – an understandable temptation to peasants living on next to nothing.  Less than half way through the novel, Rodrigues is captured, betrayed (unsurprisingly) by the very man who brought him to the island, a Japanese Christian who regularly renounces his faith to save his skin.  The rest of the novel describes how the priest wrestles with his faith, particularly in light of the suffering his arrival has brought upon the Christian peasants of Japan.

The silence of the title refers primarily to the silence of God in the face of the horrific suffering the Japanese Christians endure: some are tied to stakes in the ocean and left to die over the course of several days; others are bound and thrown into the sea to drown; another is beheaded by a samurai; and still others are tortured in “the pit,” the gruesome details of which I’d rather not go into here.  Faced with this horrific suffering, Rodrigues regularly asks God why he remains silent.  Ought he not show himself the Lord of the universe when his chosen ones are suffering at the hands of his enemies?  At the same time, the priest frequently meditates on the face of Christ, the one who also experienced the silence of God and whose beautiful face the Japanese rulers want Rodrigues to trample in an act of apostasy.  In his better moments, he sees his own suffering and that of the tiny flock in his charge as a participation in Christ’s own sufferings, but it is clear throughout the novel that his courage and conviction are challenged by his experience.  Add to this experience the weakness of his betrayer and of another Portuguese missionary, Ferreira (an actual historical figure), who apostatized and chose to collaborate with the Japanese, and the temptation to follow suit becomes practically overwhelming.

Silence is a complex, moving, and challenging novel.  As I read it, I felt torn in two directions.  On the one hand, as Rodrigues continually asked God why he remained silent, I wondered how well he had learned the gospel and counted the cost before he set out on his mission.  Jesus never said following him would be easy – on the contrary, those who would follow him can expect the same kind of treatment he received, and last I checked, crucifixion isn’t a walk in the park.  But then I asked myself, how would I have responded in the same situation?  It’s easy to accept suffering when it amounts to an annoying student here, a tedious meeting there.  If I were to witness first hand the kind of horror that Rodrigues faces, could I look it in the eye and remain strong?  I hope so, but I don’t know.

One more theme the book emphasizes is the seeming incompatibility between Christianity and Japan.  The Japanese rulers insist that Japan is a “swamp” in which the sapling of Christianity cannot grow.  William Johnston notes in the preface that Silence caused quite a stir among some contemporary Japanese Christians, who would contest this claim.  Yet I wonder if the voice of the Japanese rulers represents Endo’s own voice.  He himself was a Christian, and he portrays many of the Japanese Christians in heroic ways.  I suppose the ambiguity is one of the things I found compelling about the novel – despite its simplicity of style, the thrust of the story is not necessarily as straightforward as it seems.

If you have any interest in 17th century Japan, the interface of Christianity with foreign cultures, or issues of faith, doubt, and apostasy, then I highly recommend Silence.

Five down, (at least) forty-seven to go.


The Extraordinary Wonder of the Ordinary

I’m a G. K. Chesterton fan.  For those of you who don’t know, Chesterton was an English journalist born towards the end of the 19th century who wrote reams and reams in a variety of genres: essays, novels, poetry, Christian apologetics, short stories, plays.  Never afraid of an argument, he crossed swords, both in print and in public, with the likes of George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, and even Clarence Darrow, the famous Scopes Trial attorney, though sadly no record of the debate remains, as far as I know.  And yet he managed to maintain close friendships with men like Shaw, much though he disagreed with their ideas.

I’ve read and enjoyed a couple of Chesterton’s novels in the past, and so I decided to pick up one I hadn’t read yet, Manalive.  The plot is typically outlandish and Chestertonian, and, alas, too complicated to summarize.  Instead, I’ll reflect on some of the themes that stuck out to me.

As I was thinking about the novel this afternoon, it struck me that it actually serves as a fitting riposte to the first book I read for this project, even though it was written several decades before Camus’ novel.  Whereas Camus sees the world as absurd and meaningless, Chesterton uses the seemingly absurd to highlight the wonder and beauty of the world.  The novel brings to life some of Chesterton’s characteristic themes.  Indeed, in some ways the book struck me as a narrative version of his classic Orthodoxy.  The main character, Innocent Smith, embodies Chesterton’s embrace of taking a child-like perspective on the world.  He achieves joy because he is good, and he sees the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary.  By not taking things too seriously he recognizes their true seriousness and worth.

Manalive thus relies on Chesterton’s love of paradox.  It also evinces his penchant for puzzles and riddles.  The novel resembles the Father Brown mysteries in that the significance of odd details in the story depends on the perspective from which one interprets them.  Is Smith a murderer, a burglar, a polygamist?  It all depends on how one puts the details together.  Smith is an “allegorical practical joker,” a man who seems mad or stupid, and yet the sanest and wisest character in the story.

I know all of this sounds hazy and abstract, but the book is anything but abstract.  On the contrary, it is filled with beautiful and elaborate descriptions, and it emphasizes in good Chestertonian fashion the priority of the local and particular over the global and universal.  While not laugh-out-loud funny, the book is certainly whimsical, and it left me smiling much more than did Camus.  If you’re looking for a lighthearted and yet profound read that will remind you of the joys of the ordinary things in life, then I highly recommend Manalive.

Three down, (at least) forty-nine to go.


La vie est absurde.

I thought I’d kick things off with something light and uplifting, so I picked up a copy of Albert Camus’ The Stranger.  Okay, maybe not.  In reality, I’ve wanted to read the book for a while, and at a slender 117 pp., I figured it would be a quick read and give me some confidence as I get back on the reading wagon.

Quick it is, but light it ain’t, to say the least.  For those of you who don’t know the story, here is the briefest of outlines.  The first part of the book begins with the stark phrase “Maman died today.”  The narrator, Meursault, has just received a telegram informing him of his mother’s death, and he travels from his home in Algiers to Marengo for her funeral.  After going through the motions of the vigil and burial showing no emotion, he returns to his home and resumes his life as if nothing had happened.  He rekindles a relationship with an old flame, returns to work, chats occasionally (and often reluctantly) with his neighbors, and ends up the following Sunday on a beach excursion with his girlfriend, his neighbor/”pal” Raymond, and some friends of Raymond.  Through a series of events related to what had gone on the previous week, Part One ends with Meursault shooting an Arab man on the beach for no apparent reason.  Part Two chronicles the investigation and trial of Meursault.  Though still narrated from Meursault’s perspective, the second part focuses on the attempts of others – his lawyer, the magistrate, a prison chaplain – to make sense of his actions.  To the end Meursault confounds attempts to explain his deeds, or the world at large.  As he awaits his execution, he embraces the meaningless of the world and opens himself “to the gentle indifference of the world.”

True to my expectations, The Stranger was a quick read, and yet deceptively quick.  I think I would have to reread it a couple of more times to really “get” it.  The nature of this blog won’t allow for that, though, so here are some very brief reactions on my first reading.  Though the topic and underlying philosophy of the book are a bit depressing, I actually enjoyed reading it.  Camus’ style, terse and to the point, moves the reader along quickly and is well suited to the themes of the novel.  Meursault is a complex and bedeviling character.  On the one hand, he seems totally emotionless: he doesn’t shed a single tear over his mother’s death, nor does he want to see her one last time before her burial; when his girlfriend Marie asks if he loves her, he says it wouldn’t mean anything, but probably not; and most disturbing (to me, if not to the other characters in the novel), he feels absolutely no remorse for the murder he committed.  The first words that came to mind as I read the story were apathy and ennui.  On the other hand, Meursault is not a robot: the story ends with him at last finding happiness in the meaninglessness of life.  I suppose at root he is a non-conformist who finds the structures of meaning society clings to absurd, but that could just be my superficial reading (literature never was my strong suit).

On the whole, I’m glad I read The Stranger, but I wouldn’t want to make it (or Camus) a regular part of my reading diet.

One down, (at least) fifty-one to go.