Saturday, December 17, 2016

Three Books About Before and After War by Kazuo Ishiguro


[I am reposting this essay because some ten of my posts are getting odd traffic. Just an experiment.]



This summer I have read three more books by Kazuo Ishiguro.  I have just two books to go to read all of his seven novels and a collection of short stories. 

The first novel I read, and still my favorite, is "The Remains of the Day." Like the novels I will talk about below, it is about life in the years before and after World War II.  We see the world change and we see the effects when great men make great mistakes in all of these novels.

In the three novels I read recently, World War II is in the background, but we see very little fighting.  We see lives changed, relationships made and ruined and the horror of war lurking somewhere just beyond the page. 

Ishiguro's first novel,"A Pale View of Hills," is set in Nagasaki just after the War.  The narrator is Etsuko, a young woman who has a troubled friend who is a single mother.  The narrator eventually marries, has children, divorces and moves to England.  The single mother, Sachiko, is erratic and Sachiko's daughter, Mariko, is very strange.

Occasionally characters in the story mention that some part of Nagasaki is looking more lovely than ever.  No one says Nuclear Blast Site, but the park or garden they praise not so long before was the site of the single biggest bomb blast in World War II.  The people of Nagasaki are trying to restore their lives under American occupation and with an invisible hazard no one really understands. 

Was the troubled child a radiation victim? Did the narrator's daughter eventually commit suicide as an adult because of being born in Nagasaki just after the war?  Losing the War, the Bomb, and American Occupation haunt the narrative and deepen the tragedy of this beautifully told story.

The second novel is "An Artist of the Floating World" The first-person narrator is an aging artist named Masuji Ono. The story is set in post-war Japan in an unnamed city.  We hear the story of Ono's life in his memories and through conversations he has with old colleagues and with his family, especially his daughters. 

Ono started as a commercial artist churning out paintings for sale to tourists.  He eventually finds a "master" and spends several years with an artist who paints the pleasure world of Imperial Japan--Geishas and the places they work.  As the war nears, Ono becomes political and is rejected by his master.  Before and during the war, Ono's propaganda paintings have a wide audience, but in the Japan of democracy and US Occupation, Ono hides his paintings and his past.  Again, the war is not at the center but hovers everywhere in the background.  The "Floating World" of the title is the euphemism for the pleasure zones where men gathered for drink and games and women.   

The third book is "When We Were Orphans," is a detective novel set in Shanghai in the years before and after World War II.  We follow the narrator, Christopher Banks, from his childhood in Shanghai in the 1920s through the 1950s and the resolution of the mystery.

Christopher is the child of English expatriates working and living in Shanghai. His best friend is a Japanese boy, Akira, whose family is also in the expatriate community in pre-war Shanghai.  When Christopher is nine, his parents disappear, first his father, then his mother.  Christopher goes to England to live with relatives and grows up to become a great detective.  On the eve of World War II, Christopher returns to Shanghai to solve the mystery of his parents disappearances. 

Through Christopher Banks we see China torn by the communists and the nationalists and the horrible atrocities committed by both.  We also see the beginnings of the Japanese invasion. The return of Akira to the story was the most implausible moment of an otherwise brilliant book. 

As with "The Remains of the Day" each of these books present the atmosphere of the period before and following World War II from a very different perspective.  For people like me who are interested in war and its effect on history, these books show how profoundly wars change the lives of those who survive the war, especially those on the losing side.   

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