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To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Folio Society, 2003, 270 p, including 7 p introduction by Albert French. Illustrated by Aafke Brouwer.

To Kill a Mockingbird cover

Like most other book readers I had noted with interest the discovery and imminent publication of the pre/se/quel of To Kill a Mockingbird yet while I had seen the film I hadn’t actually read the book. In the week of Go Set a Watchman’s publication I thought it was about time to remedy that deficiency so picked up the good lady’s sumptuous Folio Society edition of the novel.

And it is as good as its reputation has it. Memorable characters; not only Atticus, Jem and Scout herself but also Mrs Dubose, Dolphus Raymond, the maid Calpurnia and the perfect absence – until his eventual intervention in the plot – of Boo Radley. Of the three most common preoccupations of literature the narrator’s supposed age of course means that there is no sex here – and there is not much love either, except of the familial kind – but there is death. The dynamics of life in the Finch household are determined by the lack of Scout’s and Jem’s mother; Calpurnia acts in loco parentis but cannot have similar authority.

It is only in retrospect that the novel can be seen as dominated by the subject of racial attitudes and prejudice; up to the intrusion of the court case it is a portrayal of a reasonably idyllic childhood (schooling traumas and running the gauntlet of the Radley place excepted) and while in the context of Tom Robinson’s trial the subject of rape is mentioned, there is actually none described in the book. In many ways this is a perfectly straightforward coming of age/gaining of wisdom story, it is the instrument by which the knowledge is gained that makes it unusual and memorable; backed up by the quality of the writing. I did feel, though, that there was a slight longueur between the trial and the dénouement, an expository tone.

Atticus is the perfect father for a girl with tomboy tendencies, arguably too perfect in his, “Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win,” though his definition, apropos Mrs Dubose, of real courage as, “when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what,” bears repetition – even if he is prepared to ignore her racism. An eight year-old may still be young enough to idealise her father but it must be remembered that the narrator isn’t actually (the almost-nine-year-old) Scout, but an older version remembering her younger self.

The language is of its time, the words negroes and nigger occurring frequently but the phrase “the smell of clean negro” made me wonder how that differed from the smell of clean anybody else. (I suppose the smell of not-clean negro is much the same as of not-clean anybody else too.)

Lee hits on a truth when she has Scout observe that in the negroes’ church, “I was confronted with the Impurity of Women doctrine that seemed to preoccupy all clergymen,” – make that all religions – and her eight year-old has the true wisdom of a child when she tells us that, “one must lie under certain circumstances and at all times when one can’t do anything about them.”

To Kill a Mockingbird is a fine first novel by anyone’s standards and addresses important issues yet when I put it down I reflected on how little books such as this matter. The text implied progress in that Tom Robinson’s conviction took hours rather than minutes yet the subject matter was still relevant when the novel was published twenty four years after the time in which the events it portrays were set. In the introduction to this edition’s first printing Albert French recalls travelling into the South in 1963 to train as a marine and feeling threatened as a result, but as an old man, nearly forty years after that, in 1996, says, “The crosses still burn and racism still haunts America.” Nigh on twenty years still further on, the problem remains.

Pedant’s corner:- As a Folio Society edition the printing is mostly in British English (eg coloured rather than colored) but furore was given without its final “e” and there was “waked up in the morning”.

The Bridge Over the Drina by Ivo Andrić

Harvill, 1994 320 p. Translated from the Serbo-Croat, Na Drini cuprija, by Lovett F Edwards. First published by Prosveta Publishing Company, Belgrade, 1945.

 The Bridge Over the Drina cover

Not many novelists could get away with an introductory passage describing a bridge. As if to show that there are no real rules for writing fiction this book begins in exactly this way. But when your title names just such a structure I don’t suppose you have much alternative. Then again while nominally a novel The Bridge Over the Drina, in spanning the centuries, cannot be anything like conventional and the book is more like a series of short stories, mythical or legendary accounts, or even anecdotes, linked only by the events in them taking place in, on or near the bridge. The legends include children buried amongst the bridge’s stones, the negro (though he was Arabic this is the word used in the town and so in the translation) half of whose body was entombed in the bridge as the result of an accident during its construction, whose ghost still inhabits it and the sight of which means death. Among the stories are those of the man impaled for impeding its construction, the severed heads mounted on its parapet after executions, another man’s ear being nailed to a wooden beam fixed to the central portion. The book is also a history of the bridge’s times and its location in Bosnia, with all that entails. Very few examples of violence are given on the page but we are treated to a description of the grisly mechanics of impalement (that curiously Balkan form of execution.)

The eleven spans of white stone are at Višegrad, erected during the height of Turkish power in the region at the behest of the Vezir Mehmed Pasha, who in his youth had been part of the blood tribute wherein sons of Christians living in the Ottoman Empire were taken away to serve as janissaries in the Sultan’s armies or as his administrators, some of whom rose to great power and wealth. (Vezir, rather than the more common vizier, is the spelling adopted here.) The town is inhabited by a mix of Christians and Turks or Muslims – these two terms tend to be used interchangeably though the latter is spelled Moslem throughout. Later in the story (and the bridge’s life) some Jews make up part of the town’s fabric. At the heart of the bridge is a kapia, made from two terraces dangling out on either side to provide a space twice the bridge’s normal width, which acts as a playground for children and a meeting- and market- place for adults. On the kapia “generation upon generation learnt not to mourn overmuch what the troubled waters had borne away. …. Life was an incomprehensible marvel, since it was incessantly wasted and spent, yet none the less it lasted and endured ‘like the bridge on the Drina’.” The bridge is the “link between East and West, … one of the great and good works of man, which do not know what it means to change and grow old, and which, or so it seemed, do not share the fate of the transient things of this world.”

While various insurrections pass they mostly leave the town untouched. Things go along for centuries in more or less the time-honoured fashion with little but the usual human foibles to disturb the townspeople but after the granting of the Austrian protectorate Christians became more like the incomers in dress and behaviour, part of the mutual changes between the Austrians and the inhabitants. With the arrival of the twentieth century things change even more, the pace of life quickens, politics and news come into the people’s lives. On the saving in journey time the railway has brought, a Muslim man opines it is, “not important how much time a man saved, but what he did with it when he had saved it. If you are going to hell, then it is better that you should go slowly.” A notice pinned on the bridge preceding the annexation crisis of 1908 is greeted by the same Muslim with the pronouncement that, “Whenever a government feels the need of promising peace and prosperity to its citizens by means of a proclamation, it is time to be on guard and expect the opposite.” He later reflects that, “Lands and provinces, and, with them, living men and their habitations passed from hand to hand like small change,” and “the Turkish candle was burned out.”

In the aftermath of the crisis the bridge is mined by the Austrian authorities. After the Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913 the Turkish frontier moves from 8 to over 600 miles away. Events were, “looked on in the town with diametrically opposed feelings by the Serbs and the Moslems: only in their intensity and depth were they perhaps equal….. Those desires which for hundreds of years had flown before the slow pace of history could no longer keep pace with it but outdistanced it. …. All that had lain quiescent in men, as ancient as that bridge and equally dumb and motionless, now suddenly came alive and began to influence their everyday life, their general mood and the personal fate of every individual.”

Of the ear incident Andrić tells us, “In moments of general excitement something has to be done, something big and unusual.” Elsewhere we have, “Moments of social upset and great inevitable change usually throw up just such men, unbalanced and incomplete, to turn things inside out or lead them astray. That is one of the signs of times of disorder,” and “Hard times cannot pass without misfortune for someone.” In the Bosnian context, “The dark background of consciousness… preparing for later far-off times unsuspected changes and catastrophes without which, it seems, peoples cannot exist and above all the peoples of this land.” More generally, in an observation attributed to the Osmanlis, “There are three things which cannot be hidden: love, a cough and poverty.”

The assassination of Franz Ferdinand precipitates the final crisis of the book. “That wild beast, which lives in man and does not dare to show itself until the barriers of law and custom have been removed, was now set free….. permission was tacitly granted for acts of violence and plunder, even for murder, if they were carried out in the name of higher interests, according to established rules, and against a limited number of men of a particular type and belief.” Serbs are again, as in Turkish times, potential enemies of the state. One of them, held hostage to the safety of the bridge thinks, “He had worked, saved, worried and made money. He had taken care not to hurt a fly, been civil to all and looked only straight ahead of him, keeping silent. And here was where it had led him: to sit between two soldiers like the lowest of brigands and wait until some shell or infernal machine should damage the bridge and, for that reason, to have his throat cut or be shot.” Reading this book is a reminder that in Bosnia the people seem always to live in interesting times.

The back page blurb states that The Bridge Over the Drina won Andrić the Nobel Prize for Literature. While under the impression that said prize was given for a body of work rather than a single novel the book certainly contains nearly all of human life: sex is only implied; but there is love – and death aplenty. It is a compendious account of what it means to live in disputed territory.

Pedant’s corner:- I haven’t seen troublous before but on looking it up it does have a slightly different meaning to troublesome, “like the eyes in their head” (heads,) scelerotic (sclerotic,) span (spun,) “waiting for the peasant woman and buying from them” (that would be women, then,) beggers (beggars,) beserk (berserk,) concorn (?) “behave as if was sober”, (as if he was sober,) handsomer (more handsome, surely?) “which will have have”, gage (gauge,) Skoplje (Skopje?) on pension (this seems more awkward than “on a pension” would,) “beetles than can be seen” (that,) “nor would see America” (nor would she see America,) “so that they could see only their heads and shoulders” (so that he could see only their heads and shoulders,) “on the slope … lay Alihodja and breathed out his life” (this reads very awkwardly.)

The White Castle by Orhan Pamuk

Vintage International, 1998? 176 p. Translated from the Turkish, Beyaz Kale, by Victoria Holbrook.

The White Castle cover

Apart from a present day introduction which frames the tale within as a found manuscript, The White Castle, Pamuk’s first novel, is set in the 17th century, narrated by an educated man from Empoli who is captured by the Turks and taken to Istanbul where he is given into the care of someone called Hoja (‘master’) who could be his double. The intention is that his learning will help Hoja in his efforts to produce better fireworks. Hoja also uses his captive’s knowledge to impress the Sultan, eventually gaining the post of royal astrologer. The two become involved in the question of why they are the way they are, the narrator confessing his past faults (which Hoja cannot.) In the process Hoja learns all about the narrator’s past. This makes the narrator increasingly uneasy, imagining Hoja, armed with this knowledge, being able to travel to Italy and take his place there, though of course in the meantime also learning about Hoja. They work for years on an “incredible” weapon – a wheeled, armoured contraption that gets bogged down when attacking the white castle of the title. This failure leads to Hoja vanishing (to Italy?) and the narrator taking his place as court astrologer, even marrying and having children. The subtlety of this is that it is possible that it is either of them who is actually narrating the story, the Italian – or Hoja. Have they really swapped places, or merely pretended to? If someone can give a realistic, convincing, appearance of being someone else, living as that person, do they actually become so? And does it matter if they are not?

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

Canongate, 2014, 592 p

 The Book of Strange New Things cover

Despite having Dutch nationality, Michel Faber, by virtue of living in Scotland for 20 years and being published here, appears on the list of 100 Best Scottish books with his first novel, Under the Skin. That’s gone on my tbr list but I read this as it was one of the nominees for the Clarke Award this year.

Pastor Peter Leigh has been taken on by a mysterious company called USIC to become a missionary to the indigenous inhabitants of the planet Oasis. (This is a strange place with a day, and hence also a night, that each last 72 hours but, as described here, has a not very diverse ecology.) The selection process meant that Peter’s wife Beatrice – also interviewed by USIC – did not accompany him but they are able to write to each other via a communication device known as the Shoot.

Importing material from Earth to Oasis is very costly indeed and the base depends to a large extent on the Oasan crop, whiteflower, which (handily) can be converted to various Earth-like foods when harvested at different stages of its cycle. However the aliens (of whom we only hear of one group) have moved away from the USIC base and Peter has to spend over an Oasan day out of contact in order to further his mission. His immersion in this task leads to a gradual estrangement both from the humans at the base and from Bea.

The religious missionary to another planet concept may be new to mainstream readers of Faber’s work but Science Fiction readers have been on this sort of territory before; most notably with A Case of Conscience and The Sparrow, however here the crisis of conscience that interaction with aliens usually engenders in the missionary is undergone not by Peter but by Bea left at home on an Earth where various disasters – to the Maldives, Guatemala, Pakistan and a Britain falling apart economically and socially (along the way Tesco’s goes bust; I read this book a few weeks after my local Tesco’s closed) – are occurring and the couple’s cat Joshua comes to a sticky end.

Another unusual feature here is that the locals are actually avid to learn about Jesus and to hear from the King James Bible (the Book of Strange New Things as they call it.) The slow unravelling of their need for this good news holds what little SF tension the book provides. Faber is more interested in the aliens’ effect on Peter and the deterioration of his relationship with Bea. Faber renders the Oasans’ inability to pronounce the “s” “t” and “ch” sounds in English by using symbols (easily decipherable in context.) He then gives us Peter’s final speech to them almost entirely in these symbols but I wasn’t engrossed enough to try to decode them.

As a novel of how distance can undermine a relationship this is fine but, despite the aliens, it doesn’t really hit the SF buttons.

Pedant’s corner:- tourniquetted (tourniqueted?) imposter (impostor,) after a some hesitation, “glotch of submersion into the liquid-filled crib” (glotch seems to be a coinage, it doesn’t conform to the definition I found in the urban dictionary.) The text is full of Usianisms – lonesome, Styrofoam, Band-Aids, Caucasian, trunk, Cub Scout rather than just Cub, but uses British spellings, eg foetus. There is a reference to cameras with film in them (to be fair technology seems not to work well on Oasis) and to Georgia being in the Russian Federation as opposed to an independent state. I noted frequent instances of “seconds (or minutes) later” and a few of “within minutes/seconds.”

The Vacant Casualty by Patty O’Furniture

A Parody, Boxtree, 2012, 247 p

 The Vacant Casualty cover

I saw this in one of my local libraries and couldn’t resist. The words, “Is it a murder mystery? Is it biting social satire? Who knows? Who cares? You’re not my mother – where am I?” adorn the front cover and the Praise on the back reads, ‘Quite simply one of the world’s leading prose stylists – and a wonderful wife’ – Derek O’Furniture; ‘Writing Crooked House was pure pleasure and I feel justified in my belief that it is one of my best’ – Agatha Christie; ‘With Trans-Europe Express Kraftwerk single-handedly popularised the electric music genre’ – NME; ‘Johnny is progressing very well with the oboe, but might take a little more care with his fingering’ – Miss Pripps, Music Teacher.

With blurb like that you know you’re not in for a serious read and so it turns out. Terry Fairbreath has disappeared from the small town of Mumford – a village dominated by the fact that a famous author of fantasy books lives there. Despite the locals never mentioning the author’s name – indeed they take great pains not to – this has brought tourists to the town, which is now festooned with Olde Shoppes – including Ye Olde Cure-iosity Shoppe (Chemist) and the Olde DVD Shoppe. (How soon such things date.)

Despite the resonances invoked by this there is only one supernatural element in the book; the appearance of an ogre which at one point chases our two main characters Reginald Bradley, recently promoted to Detective Inspector, and journalist Sam Easton, who is researching police work for a proposed novel. Bradley has doubts about his suitability to fill his new role, Easton provides advice dredged from his memories of crime novels and TV series. In the end the whole thing ends up as more of a parody of detective fiction than of fantasy.

The reference to the town seeing off a plan to dump tens of thousands of remaindered crappy parodies written by “talentless half-brained hacks” trying “to make a quick buck off the back of genuinely successful authors by writing things with similar titles and book covers” is perhaps a step too far. I did like though, “an ancient stone wall constructed of paving slabs,” which had this not been a parody would have been a contender for Pedant’s Corner.

Pedant’s corner: snuck, the first fifteen of the Mumford rugby league team (only thirteen to a side in rugby league I’m afraid,) linem of business (line,) two film noirs (films noir,) from whence, Styrofoam cups is USian – as is fire department – slew (slewed,) and a paragraph indent occurring in the middle of a sentence.

Günter Grass

I see that Günter Grass has died.

I haven’t actually read any of his novels – he’s one of those novelists whom I meant to get round to sometime. The closest I have come was when I watched the film that was made of his novel The Tin Drum. The film was excellent.

There was a stooshie when he revealed he had been a member of the Waffen SS – mostly because he had managed to keep the fact to himself for 60 years and in the interim had been outspoken about Germany’s post-war attitude to the Nazis. I doubt, though, many German seventeen year-olds would have resisted being called up in 1944. In any case his war record can have had no bearing whatsoever on his abilities as a writer. As a person perhaps; but not as an author. (There were doubtless many more in Germany, Austria and various parts of Eastern Europe who may have had more reason to keep theirs quiet.)

The Nobel Committee saw fit to award him its prize in literature in 1999. That puts him in good company.

Günter Grass: 16/10/1927 – 13/4/2015. So it goes.

The Affair in Arcady by James Wellard

Hutchinson, 1959, 336 p.

The Affair in Arcady cover

Clive Marshall, a not very successful author, has been hired to write the history of The Tylers of Tyler County: An Epic of American Enterprise, coming over from his home in Italy, leaving his wife to her nascent acting career, to do so. One night at work on this project in the family’s pile in Arcady, Illinois, he is disturbed by a young woman tapping at the window. When she enters he discovers she is the daughter of the house, Abbie. Abbie is wayward, used to getting her own way, except for when she chose a boyfriend her folks found unsuitable. That affair having been ended she continues to choose wrongly. Marshall’s first impressions of her are not favourable but neither that nor the fact that he is married stops him having sex with her the next night. Thereafter Marshall is inexorably drawn into Abbie’s orbit. Put as baldly as this it might not seem that this is a particularly worthwhile novel but Wellard’s writing is discursive and acute, his character drawing excellent. Outstanding here is Abbie’s stepfather, Earl Borman, in all his venality, his sureness of his world view, his sense of entitlement. When Marshall returns to Italy for a brief spell his wife, Lydia, is also revealed in all her frivolity. Marshall himself is portrayed as weak and easily led.

The situation gives Wellard plenty rein to criticise the society and culture he is describing. “I’ve enough evidence to prove that the Tylers were a clan of greedy, ruthless, unprincipled land and money-grubbers. So, as you asked me before, what do I intend to do about it? Answer: write them up as great Americans.” “The only true thing that was ever said about all of them was that all great men are bad.” “‘Yessir. Nobody wants to cheer a losing team.’ Marshall looked at him, aware that he had just uttered a profound maxim of American philosophy. … He had never even thought of football as a game…. This set of values… made him so … different from other national types, providing an incontrovertible argument against internationalism and the brotherhood of man.”

The words “negress”, “negro”, “darkies” and the other (now highly unacceptable) “n” word appear early and at first I thought their presence was simply a marker of the time the novel was written but they are important since racial prejudice and animus against miscegenation are germane to the plot. Oddly we had what I assume is an expletive deleted in the phrase “you –– bastard” though the last word there is considered by many to be unmentionable.

The title – and the novel – is of course about more than the relationship between Abbie and Marshall. As Marshall’s research into the family’s papers proceeds the dark secrets of the Tylers’ recent past are revealed. In Abbie’s fractured search for meaning in life, and her justified resentment towards her family, lie the seeds of despair.

The Affair in Arcady is an excellent book. I am mystified that it and Wellard himself do not appear on the Fantastic Fiction website. There is an extensive list of his books on LibraryThing though.

Pedant’s corner:- Youasked for it, ciaous (ciaos,) hadn’t of been – but this was in direct speech – if is is (if it is,) damwell (damn well,) ofthe (of the,) should of – again in direct speech, interne.

Traveller of the Century by Andrés Neuman

Pushkin Press 2013, 592 p. Translated from the Spanish El viajero del siglo by Nick Caistor and Lorenza García.

 Traveller of the Century cover

Traveller of the Century is the first novel by Argentinian born though long time Spanish resident Andrés Neuman to be translated into English.

Its protagonist, Hans, arrives by coach in the city of Wandernburg, somewhere on the borders of Prussia and Saxony, fully intending not to stay long. The city is strange, though. Apart from the constant changing between which of the two countries it belongs to (the setting is post-Napoleonic, there is a lot of moaning by the characters about the baleful influence of Metternich) its streets and buildings seem to realign themselves every night. So once again I find myself reading about a weird city (The City and the City, Pfitz) or altered borders (Europe in Autumn.) Neuman does not overplay this aspect of his novel however. The shifting topography is mere background, the city as it is. Hans finds himself lingering in Wandernburg (it is a difficult city to shake off) and becomes drawn into the lives of its characters; especially the literary salon held every Friday by Sophie Gottlieb and her father. The best friend he makes in the city is a lowly organ-grinder (who sadly does not have a monkey but rather a dog) living in a cave two miles outside the city. And there is a masked man who is attacking women at night.

Barring one two-line exchange on page 569 the dialogue isn’t marked out from the rest of the text in any way – neither by quotation marks nor by dashes – but rather is embedded within it (characters talking across or interrupting each other is rendered in parentheses, as are any actions of the speaker.) This idiosyncrasy does take some getting used to and, coupled with the lengthy discussions of philosophy, politics, economics, the merits or otherwise of Walter Scott’s novels, poetry etc in the scenes taking place in the salon, is one of the reasons it took me a while to settle to the book. Once in its stride however, the thrust of the story won me over. The love affair which we always know is inevitable between Hans and Sophie – despite her engagement to the wealthy Rudi von Wilderhaus – has a slow build up but gives Neuman ample scope to deal with two of the eternal literary concerns, love and sex. Sophie is a determined woman, opinionated in the salon, standing up to both father and fiancé in the matter of assisting Hans in his works of translation (a great excuse for the two to meet in Hans’s room at the inn,) and, a fact naturally kept concealed from father and fiancé but of course impossible to hide from Hans, sexually experienced to boot, an attribute which Hans rather appreciates.

There is a hint of mystery to Hans beyond his status as a traveller. He has books that look old but bear recent publication dates. It is only one of the many intriguing aspects of the book that his origins remain an enigma to the end.

In the salon we hear of Adam Smith that his “theories are capable of enriching a state and impoverishing its workers,” a fact proved many times over in the past two centuries, also – in a comment emblematic of the author’s referential approach – “These Argentinians are very restless, they are everywhere at the moment. They have a penchant for Europe and seem to speak several languages. They talk incessantly about their own country but never stay there.” Of Hans and his friend Álvaro we are told, “They spoke in a manner two men rarely succeeded in doing – without interrupting or competing with one another.” The novel might have been designed to test the statement that, “There are two types of people. Those who always leave and those who always stay put,” while Hans says to Sophie, “I feel as if time has stopped, but at the same time I’m aware of how fast it is going. Is that what being in love is?”

Not that it’s all serious stuff. We encounter a pair of semi-comical police officers, Lieutenants Gluck and Gluck (father and son,) tasked with finding the attacker. And what are we to make of the names thrown in as if at random of those incidental characters, Rummenigge, Klinsman and Voeller? I doubt it is laziness on Neumann’s part, as if he has only a limited knowledge of German names and merely utilised those he had heard elsewhere. Is it a subtly sardonic allusion, a joke at the expense of any highbrow readers, who will eagerly latch on to the salon discussions but perhaps miss this reference to German former footballers – and strikers at that?

Whatever my misgivings to begin with, Traveller of the Century is a novel not frightened of demanding effort from its readers but worth that effort just the same, one of those works that will stay with me for a long time.

Pleasingly, the translation seemed to be into British English but there were still a few entrants to Pedant’s Corner:- “And, yes, be able” (to be able,) there’s no need be so formal, the only thing he kept up all evening were…. (was,) neither of us like to waste time (likes,) from her there to her navel (from there to her navel,) laid for lay, do you take me for fool (a fool,) medieval, running towards to them, knelt down next to straw pallet.
I looked up Braille and water closet in case of anachronism. The first just about fits; however the second term wasn’t used in English till 1870. But the book is set in Germany and written in Spanish, perhaps the description was in earlier use in those two languages.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

Sceptre, 2011, 564 p.

The Thousand Autumns of Jocab de Zoet cover

This novel has been described in a quote on the back cover as a tour de force and I must say it is likely to remain in my mind for a long time. It will certainly figure in my best of the year even if this is still only February.

The Jacob de Zoet of the title is a Dutchman who, in order to prove his worthiness to marry his sweetheart Anna, is out to make his fortune in the Dutch trading mission on the island of Dejima off Nagasaki at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (CE) – during the Tokugawa Shogunate, when all other European contacts were banned, as was travel abroad for Japanese. The present tense narration is in the third person, save for a single chapter in first person from the point of view of a slave in the Dutch trading post. Woven into the tale is the history of relations between Japan and the outside world up to that point. While the novel is roughly based on incidents that took place on Dejima around that time I would hazard that the part of the plot involving the Lord Abbot Enomoto is not.

The first part of the novel outlines de Zoet’s endeavours in exposing the various corruptions of previous Chiefs of the post and his interactions with Japanese translators. Reading about the difficulties of translation between Japanese and Dutch in a third language – English – is a bit surreal. The very first chapter, however, introduces us to Aibagawa Orito, the disfigured daughter of a samurai, who is learning to be a midwife under the tutelage of the Dutch doctor at Dejima. Her path and de Zoet’s cross and, despite feelings of guilt at betraying Anna, Jacob becomes attracted to Orito. His hopes in affairs of the heart and commerce are both soon dashed. In the second section, where Aibagawa Orito has been taken away to the religious institution run by the Lord Abbot, the novel takes a sudden left turn as this middle part of the book deals solely with her plight and the efforts of her Japanese admirer, the interpreter, Ogawa Uzaemon, to free her. The third and concluding part of the novel returns us to Dejima as well as on to the British frigate which arrives to attempt to take advantage of the fall of the Netherlands to Napoleon’s armies.

The book is unusual in that it contains a number of illustrations, mostly anatomical but also two townscapes – well, one townscape and a shrinescape – plus some of “de Zoet’s” sketches of Origo.

While reading I was struck by certain parallels with Science Fiction. There is a type of SF story which also has an isolated trading/diplomatic post many months (or years) travel from home, dealing with and trying to understand a different culture. In Origo’s captivity we have different SF parallels but they are even more marked, as the Sheranui Shrine is a closed society with its own rules and a menace at its heart.

The characters, especially the Japanese, impress. Care and detail is lavished both on them and on the background. Even the minor ones have the ring of truth. That short first person chapter includes a meditation on the internal autonomy of slaves. One member of the Dutch mission tells de Zoet, “Tain’t good intentions that pave the road to hell; it’s self-justifyin’s.” There is also towards the end a very rhythmic paragraph listing the lives/occupations of the inhabitants of Nagasaki which is reminiscent of Auden’s The Night Mail in its metre and rhyming. Then there was the almost impenetrable phrase, “A smoke-dried Dane makes Finn’s Cock of a tangled Vang,” which seems to entangle nautical terms with the history of the times.

A tour de force? It was certainly fascinating and absorbing throughout, likely to remain with me for a long time.

Pedant’s corner:- “A well-travelled round of Edam and sour apples are divided,” (a round is singular;) snonky appears to be a coinage by Mitchell; wistaria (apparently a variant of the more usual wisteria) was repeated several times; “the pair enjoys,” (again; a pair is singular) guarding this natural revile (revile here is in the sense of ravine but I can’t find such a definition anywhere.)

Deep River by Shusaku Endo

Peter Owen, 1994, 220 p. Translated from Japanese by Van C Gessel.

Deep River cover

I read Endo’s Silence (published 1966) and The Samurai (1980) years ago now but this is the first book of his I have read since. Endo’s writing is unlike most Japanese authors in that it is coloured by his Christianity, specifically Roman Catholicism. Silence dealt directly with the missionary times in Japan, The Samurai with the cultural differences between Japan and “the West.”

Deep River engages with yet another culture, that of India, mainly following a group of Japanese tourists there ostensibly to visit Buddhist sites but each of whom has his or her own concerns. Isobe has lost his wife to cancer but on her deathbed she whispered she was convinced she would reincarnate; he has learned of a possible candidate in India. Mitsuko has a connection to Ōtsu, a man she tormented in her college days who is now doing good works in Varanasi (the book spells this city’s name as Vārānasī throughout.) Numada is a children’s writer who wants to set free a myna bird as an act of restitution. Kiguchi is haunted by his experience on the Highway of Death in the retreat from Burma and wishes to have a reconciliatory memorial service to the fallen of both sides.

(Aside:- It is perhaps understandable that little of the hideousnesses that Kiguchi remembers from the retreat is remarked on in non-Japanese writings. In the aftermath of an ill-advised offensive which duly went wrong the soldiers were left to their own devices and suffered accordingly. But then even in their good times Japanese soldiers were notoriously ill-served by their superiors. In retreat they were just forgotten.)

While the first part of the book chronicles the back-stories of the four main characters it is India that is the true centre of the novel. All four encounter the overpowering nature of that country. The deep river is not only the Ganges at Varanasi but the mass of humanity. Yet even here Endo’s Catholicism makes itself felt. Ōtsu has his own particular take on theology, failing his seminary education by being unable to accept European views and seeing God in all religions not exclusively in one. Nevertheless he clings to what he sees as his Christian beliefs.

The trip coincides with Indira Gandhi’s assassination. This coupled with his experiences on the Highway of Death makes Kiguchi come to the somewhat jaundiced conclusion that, “It was not love but the formation of mutual enmities that made a bonding between human beings possible.”

While the manifestations of Japanese, and indeed Indian, culture may appear odd to western eyes, reading books like this shows that at their hearts people really do not vary much the world over. Here it is religion that is the biggest estranging factor.

Refreshingly the translation is into British English but there were some entries for Pedant’s Corner:- négligé (négligée,) when he laid (lay) in wait, her name in Rajini (is,) when… gets me alone this (like this,) resembling that of his dead wife’s (a possessive too far,) we’d better just lay low (lie,) of the the taxi, “a harmonium, an instrument resembling a harmonica” (it isn’t clear whether this is supposed to mean two different instruments or if a harmonium resembles a harmonica – which it doesn’t,) to eat they daily bread (their.)

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