Thursday, July 22, 2010

Kazuo Ishiguro's A Pale View of Hills (1982)


Whenever I talk or think about Kazuo Ishiguro, I find myself wanting to say or think "Ishiguro Kazuo." That is, I find myself doing the mental thing I do when I read an English translation of a Japanese writer, which is to flip their names back into Japanese order. Thus I may read "Haruki Murakami," but I've trained myself to think "Murakami Haruki." Because, dude, that's who he is.

But Kazuo Ishiguro, as near as I can tell, isn't "Ishiguro Kazuo." I mean, I don't know anything about his personal life, but judging by what's public knowledge, he's British, not Japanese. Let me hurry to say that I'm not trying to set myself up as some kind of arbiter of authenticity, nor do I think he should be taken primarily as a representative of his culture, whatever that may be. He's himself first and foremost: born in Japan, raised in the UK from age 6. His parents named him 石黒一雄, but he seems to have grown up as Kazuo Ishiguro.

But what does that matter? From his third novel on, I'm not sure that it does. But in his first two novels, I think it matters a great deal, because he sets them in Japan, a Japan that he later admitted (see the bottom of that Wikipedia entry) was mostly imaginary. As it could only be, since not only was he not raised there, but he was writing about Japan in the 1940s and early 1950s, before his own birth.

These first two novels present difficulties because even though he is imagining Japan, he gets it largely right, which lends his imagination a certain authority. Or does he? I don't know. I first encountered Ishiguro in a class on Japanese literature - the prof ended the term by asking us to think about "diaspora" J-lit. So from the first I was thinking about these books in terms of accuracy - and hell, I don't know. I wasn't in Nagasaki during the Occupation: I don't know if the characters in A Pale View of Hills are acting authentically Japanese or like an Englishman's idea of Japanese. The question nags at me: I'll admit it: but I think it nags at me less because I think there's an answer and I don't know it than because it forces me to confront the fact that there can be no answer to that question, but no escape from it either. I've always felt that to formulate an "authentically" Japanese (or British, or American) behavior is to stereotype, essentialize, and I've always fought against it, but at the same time I'm not sure if it's possible to completely abstain from this kind of thinking. Ishiguro, I think, is aware of that: early in the book the narrator, a Japanese woman living in Britain, gripes at how the English think Japanese have a racial predilection for suicide - and yet the story she tells is full of suicides. In other words Ishiguro is highlighting a British stereotype of Japaneseness even as he's indulging it, perhaps even perpetuating it.

Jim Emerson at Scanners talks about what he calls the Barton Fink Box Test. He quotes Joel Coen talking about the mysterious package in that masterpiece of a film:

The question is: Where would it get you if something that's a little bit ambiguous in the movie is made clear? It doesn't get you anywhere.
I think we can even extrapolate from this a Barton Fink Box Ploy, whereby filmmakers, and novelists and whoever else, introduce a note of ambiguity precisely to remind you that what's at stake isn't really What's In The Box, but What Does The Box Mean. It's how the Coens shock you out of what's (also) a really good Hollywood noir so that you remember it's also a piece of arthouse existentialism. It masterfully turns the conversation away from the plot and toward the meaning of the events in the plot (meaning being, of course, something the Coens always deny in their interviews). "I'll show you the life of the mind."

Ishiguro has a classic BFBP at the climax of A Pale View of Hills, where suddenly we wonder if two separate characters are really one and the same, if any of the events we've been told about really happened, if the narrator actually killed her own child... And of course it tantalizes us: I want to know if Etsuko and Sachiko are one and the same, if Keiko and Mariko are one and the same, etc.

But immediately I realize that this is Barton Fink's Box. Would knowing if Etsuko and Sachiko are one and the same make any difference? Whether or not they are, we can say that Etsuko feels some responsibility for her daughter Keiko's suicide, and she's in denial about it, that she feels some guilt for fleeing Japan for the UK over the wishes and expectations of her first husband and her child, and she's not talking about that. To put a finer point on it: either Etsuko is Sachiko, and she killed her daughter Mariko so she could be free to move to America with her lover, or she's not Sachiko, but only Etsuko, who forced her daughter Keiko to move to UK with her and her lover, in the process setting her daughter up for so much depression that she eventually kills herself. Same difference.

Same could be said, I guess, about the question of the novel's authenticity as a depiction of Japan during the Occupation. The question is: is the novel an authentic depiction of Japan during the Occupation, or is it an Englishman's imagination of Japan during the Occupation. The answer to that question is eternally elusive, but knowing the answer wouldn't change anything. What we have is a penetrating examination of self-sacrifice, self-denial, and how it will fail at key moments; of the lies we tell ourselves to mask those moments of failure; of the undeniable need for self-fulfillment, for a chance at happiness, damn the consequences; and we have all of this in a sharply-evoked context of social upheaval that threatens or promises to revolutionize gender relations.

What we have, in short, is a novel full of insights. Whether those insights are ultimately Japanese or British is unanswerable. The answer is in the box - but the box itself is a fiction. There's nothing inside.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Mission Dolores pix

Mrs. Sgt. T took some photos of Mission Dolores, and she gave me a few to post.

First, here's the exterior. The old mission chapel is on the left, the new basilica on the right.

Next, here's the interior of the old chapel.

Here's a closeup of the altarpiece at the end.

Here's a closeup of the closeup:

Here's the inside of the basilica, looking toward the altar:

Here's the inside of the basilica, looking toward the street entrance:

And here's St. Francis.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Mission Dolores, San Francisco

Mrs. Sgt. T and I like church architecture. Someday we're going to make it to Europe together and see some of the great cathedrals; she's seen a lot of them, but I haven't. In the meantime, whenever we travel in the US we try to see famous churches. Which is not too easy, because for all its Christian fervor, America doesn't celebrate its church buildings as much as I think it could.

Case in point: when we went to San Francisco we sought out Mission Dolores. This is the original Spanish mission, founded by colleagues of Father Junipero Serra in 1776, from which the city of San Francisco grew. The original late-18th century mission chapel still stands, relatively unchanged, surviving earthquakes and fires; it's the oldest structure in the city. The modern basilica next to it was built after the great earthquake, but it has going for it an immense architectural beauty, inside and out. All told, you'd figure this would be a major tourist destination, and yet when we went it was all but empty; certainly it gets only a fraction of the visitors that Alcatraz does, or the Golden Gate Bridge, or Chinatown. All of which are awe-inspiring; but so is this.

The mission chapel is adobe, and is imposing even now; obviously part of its architectural message at the time was shock and awe, and you can still feel a little of that today. It was an interesting comparison for us with San Xavier del Bac south of Tucson, which we visited last December but never got around to blogging. They were both built at around the same time, and my impression at least is that both more or less retain their original look. But San Xavier, besides being rather larger, is almost entirely frescoes inside, and seems to have more of the flavor of Native American design in its wall-paintings. There's a little of that in Dolores, on the painted roofbeams for example, but the centerpiece there is a huge altarpiece that was carried up from Mexico proper in the late 18th century: it's much more subdued in its coloring and European in its shapes. At least, so it seemed to me: no expert.

The basilica next door dates from 1918, after the earthquake, and it's a marvelous early 20th century cathedral. It contains a dazzling array of mosaics and stained glass of a variety of colors and subjects, but what gives the whole place such a memorable air is the big mostly-scarlet stained glass of St. Francis at one end, which bathes the whole interior in a crimson glow, like a late-summer sunset.

(I wish now that I'd blogged San Xavier at the time: it's tremendously impressive, too. And in both cases we were invited to think about the naked power the buildings were meant to display. At Mission Dolores that's not as immediately apparent, since the surrounding buildings are nice modern apartments; but San Xavier is still surrounded by the evident poverty of the Tohono O'odham reservation. That is to say, it's still pretty easy to see what impression the missionaries meant to give with this building, and by extension with Mission Dolores too [different missionaries, same mission]: shock and awe, as I say.

It's a good thing to be reminded of that. And yet we find it doesn't really diminish our admiration of the beauty of the buildings themselves. I don't know if that's insensitive of us; I hope it isn't, but I do wonder. How can the same heart be simultaneously saddened by the mistreatment of indigenous peoples and gladdened by the architecture that was an instrument of that mistreatment? I don't know. I mean, in an odd way my experience of these places is probably enhanced by a sense that their beauty is mingled with tragedy. So much of history is like that.)

Sunday, July 18, 2010

San Francisco

This is turning into a what-I-did-on-my-summer-working-vacation blog, but I guess that's okay. After a hectic couple of weeks in Japan we came back to the States, to Eugene via San Francisco. Our first visit there.

We didn't do much in SF that falls under the purview of this blog. We visited the Haight so that I, as a semicloseted hippie wannabe, could fantasize that I was getting a sense of what it might have been like, and so I could stand in front of 710 Ashbury Street. We went to the Asian Art Museum, but I was too jet-lagged to really enjoy it, except for the original copy of The Four Immigrants Manga they had on display. I went to the City Lights bookstore, and was disappointed by their selection of haiku (whatever you're going to say: yes, I know). We went to Mission Dolores - but that deserves a post of its own.

That said, in a blog dedicated mostly to things I find beautiful, I just have to say: San Francisco is the most beautiful city I've ever seen.

The inevitable caveats: I haven't traveled much outside the US, so I make no claims for it vis-a-vis Venice, Paris, Buenos Aires, Delhi, or wherever. And I haven't been to every important American city, although I've been to a lot. And I'm not talking "most awesomest city": that would be Tokyo, hands down. And I make no judgments as to SF's liveability: I think I'd like its public transport, its food, its weather, and its politics, but I'm sure there's a lot I wouldn't like.

And I'm not talking about the city with the most beautiful things in it: that might be Kyoto, or (I grudgingly admit) New York. I'm talking of the city itself, of city as art object, as something to look at in its own right.

And everywhere I looked in San Francisco - and I know we were only there for four days, and mostly only saw the touristy spots - I saw beauty. The buildings, the hills, the public art, the views of the bay and the bridges and the skyscrapers and the endless Victorians. San Francisco is breathtaking.