Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Never Let me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

This was my first Ishiguro, and I read it in four hours flat (one sitting- one short haul flight). It is a fast paced read. Without presuming to be a thriller, the book has an edge of the seat quality to it, and the sadness that permeates the book is too genuine to ignore.

The story is told by Kathy H a ‘donor’ who has been cloned along with hundreds of others for a purpose- to first care for similarly cloned donors, and then to donate their organs one by one, until they die or ‘complete’ (their life purpose). The narrative skips from our protagonist’s reminiscences of Hailsham- an exclusive boarding school that she attended- and her latter day experience of the world. These reminiscences are in the form of stories that go back and forth, spinning a web of nostalgia, and quite easily taking us into its awful centre. The stories centre around Kathy and two close friends- Ruth the willful, frightened girl who would much rather pretend the horror of their existence away and Tommy who struggles through his short life to keep his rage and outrage at bay. Kathy is the civilized pragmatist, and so far the survivor.

The premise is fantastic. The idea of liberally and wonderfully educated people subscribing to this dreadful design is hard to swallow. It would work if the school were a conditioning ground, or if the victims were brutalized into accepting their situation. This has happened through history. And it is not fair to the victims to question their subservience to apparently intolerable and sometimes incredible systems. But there is no indoctrination in Hailsham. The teachers are wonderful and love their pupils, the children are exposed to arts and humanities and science and have hopefully read about fascism and slavery. Yet, as a group they never question the system- even in order to achieve regular little desires like going to college or marrying a sweetheart. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas offers a more convincing explanation for this sort of unforced and unquestioned subservience. The clone-types in Mitchell’s future scenario are more humanoid than human, and drugged into accepting their state.

This seeming inconsistency continued to irritate me. As I tried to understand it, I picked up Ishiguro’s Booker winner- “The Remains of the Day”. The book concerns itself with an all too human butler of a ‘good man’ misguided enough to back Hitler. Heartbreaking as this story of a perfect English butler is, what was interesting to me was the parallel with NLG. The menacing overhang of a fascist system is palpable in both novels. For what else would you call a society that has a violent peace? Make soap out of bones, make people out of organs- it is systematic atrocity and narcosis that characterizes fascism.

A glimmer of understanding appeared through the clouds of confusion! Hesitatingly I propose that Ishiguro is deeply affected by the Second World War. I posit that he has tried to marry man’s day to day human experience with his brutal history. ‘Never Let Me Go’ talks of the working of an awful system through entirely plausible and comprehensible persons. The difference is that ‘Never Let Me Go’ is an elegy to the victims of oppression. ‘Remains of the Day’ tries and gets inside the head of normal, decent people who were part of the oppressing class. Is he fixated on Fascism in particular? I believe so, especially if you connect it up with Ishiguro’s own history of moving from Japan and growing up in post-war Britain.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Beloved by Toni Morrison

A post-bellum black settlement in the outskirts of Cincinnati: Sethe, a lone proud woman lives in house 124, with her withdrawn daughter Denver and the ghost of her murdered third child. Until Paul D turns up- another survivor of the Kentucky homestead across the river, the slave plantation from hell that Sethe escaped but is never free from. Paul D takes up with Sethe and drives away the ghost, upsetting Denver. But a semblance of normalcy and Paul D’s good humor are a powerful attraction; a thaw is coming. At this point a girl appears in Sethe’s yard calling herself “Beloved.” Sethe’s Beloved, adored by Denver, tormentor of Paul D.

This is the stunning setting for this complex novel that traverses time for each of its characters enabling them to ‘rememory’ what they have ‘disremembered’ in order to survive. And in as much as it reviles that most abominable of institutions and through its characters indicts an entire race, there is very little that is sensational. Terrible experiences, the heart breaking fates of those that could not make it, are rendered mainly through a quick telling or a reference, or a sad wondering. What Morrison achieves is focus on the aftermath. Who is Beloved? It is the name engraved on the baby’s gravestone. Is she the ghost returned with redoubled vigor? Or is she a child-woman, a victim of the Middle Passage and worse, who has mistaken Sethe for her dead mother? Does Beloved stand for all victims of slavery in America? Is she an allegory for the institution itself?

I posit that the institution and her architects the slavers, brutalized a population to the point where they had to kill the child inside them to stay alive. They are now haunted by the presence of this loss- the loss of innocence, hope and happiness. This loss of their childhood and the capacity to be-loved is Beloved. She is as old as the first rape in the first passage of slaves across the Atlantic. Beloved is the ghost of excised humanity; she is angry and greedy to come back. But you cannot embrace her- she is not a child, she is her ghost, an ‘absence’. She will alienate her people and she will not allow them to pursue happiness for she is vengeful.

If Sethe represents the damaged past of a people- her back is a tree- Paul D can be seen as the optimistic side of his people. He lives in the here and now and has survived through practicing detachment. But he too is a prisoner of the past. He has survived in fact by refusing to revisit his past and is quite helpless before the seductive force of Beloved. His tightly locked up fund of bitterness and sorrow is soon pried open and he has no choice but to fly.

Denver as the undamaged future should be less vulnerable, but having grown up alone in a haunted house she knows no-one else. For her, Beloved is initially exciting and attractive but ultimately isolating and weakening. However, being undamaged, she has the resources and the power to resist the influence of this most heart rending of metaphors. With the help of the community she avoids self-destruction.

Beloved is a book of redemption that looks to the younger generation, the larger community and significantly women to heal an unspeakable wound. I found the book traumatic and therapeutic. And the staggering novel craft! The coinage of new words, the knotted narrative woven through with countless,seamless strands of story and allegory that move this way and that, glint this way and that, to produce an enchantment that is truly the work of genius. We could only marvel at it, analysis was beyond us.

We introspected and thought of what it would have taken to implement the Varna system in Aryan India.

As the unrecorded history of a subjugated people we agreed it was invaluable.