Two Novels

February 22,2005

Chaka Khan…Chaka Khan…Chaka Khan…Chaka Kahn!

January 24,2005

Postscript to Dylan Documentary

January 21,2005


January 11,2005

Postscript to Rose and the Monkey Spider

January 07,2005

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Two Novels

February 22,2005

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett and Life of Pi by Yann Martell are two novels I have read recently and both have a Japan connection.

Bel Canto relates the story of a Japanese businessman who is obsessed with opera. For his birthday he reluctantly agrees to attend a party arranged for him in an unnamed South American country that is trying to lure an investment from his company. He finally agrees to attend for the sole reason that his favorite opera singer has been engaged to sing at the party. He arrives, the party begins, and, in the middle of the diva’s performance, a guerrilla group attack and take the guests hostage. From there the novel stumbles and bumbles through a predictable denouement and contrived last act.

The reason I mention the novel at all is for its unusually empathetic characterization of the Japanese businessman, with whom the beautiful diva falls in love, and his linguistically gifted, multilingual interpreter. The businessman is portrayed as the sophisticated, sensitive soul of the multinational group of hostages, almost painfully attuned to fine music, inwardly serene, emotionally strong and in no need of any particular spoken language to communicate with the singer, who becomes the object of desire of many of the male hostages. Japanese are hardly renowned for their linguistic abilities and yet Patchett goes over the top in endowing the interpreter with a working knowledge of most European languages and communication skills that would have been the envy of Peter Ustinov. Although the novel fails in many ways, I applaud Patchett’s attempt to offer a more rounded, positive characterization of her Japanese characters. With so many people now visiting and residing in Japan and with so many Japanese traveling abroad, it is about time that artists and others began to paint Japanese as interesting but irrefutably common members of the species homo sapien, instead of “inscrutable Orientals”, and that the Japanese themselves and certain foreign Japanologists buried their carefully cultivated uniqueness myth.

Life of Pi, on the other hand, comes with an unreserved recommendation. The book offers quirky language, profound imagination, outrageous plot presumptions, and a circus balancing act that challenges the reader’s sense of belief at every turn. The novel rocks and rolls. Just think of Tibor Fischer in full flight (as in The Thought Gang) and you will get the tone. What more could you expect when you have a young man cast adrift on the ocean after the sinking of a ship transporting his father’s zoo animals to Canada, with a Bengal tiger, a zebra, a hyena, and an orang hutan as companions in his life craft as he attempts to battle the elements and deal with his motley, life threatening crew. In the early part of the novel, set in Southern India, Martel describes with empathy and humor the attempts of his protagonist’s to come to ecumenical terms with religion (Christianity, Hinduism and Islam).

The Japanese connection in Life of Pi comes in the outrageously comical postscript, which purports to be a transcript of an interview between two bureaucrats from Japan’s Ministry of Transport and the now rescued protagonist as they question him on the sinking of the Japanese owned ship. Martell has cleverly inserted comments (in distinctively different typeface) that claim to be translations of comments between the two bureaucrats as they interview him. If these be caricatures of Japanese bureaucrats, so be it. The postscript is no more than a comic device that succeeds admirably in giving a taste of what these people can be like (believe me) and in bringing this rollicking tale to a belly laugh close. Bravo!

Bons mots et mauvais mots by the famous and not so famous

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