Chang-rae Lee has an extraordinary talent for describing violence. Here is his account of the gang rape and murder of a Korean sex slave (“comfort woman”) in a Japanese army camp during World War II:
I ran up the north path by the latrines, toward the clearing, as it was known, which was where Corporal Endo had taken K’s sister. But I wasn’t halfway there when I met them coming back, singly and together and in small groups. The men. It was the men. Twenty-five of them, thirty of them. I had to slow as they went past. Some were half-dressed, shirtless, trouserless, half-hopping to pull on boots. They were generally quiet. The quiet after a great celebration. They were flecked with blood, and muddy dirt, some more than others. One with his hands and forearms as if dipped in crimson. Another’s face smudged with it, the color strange in his hair. One was completely clean, only his boots soiled; he was vomiting as he walked. Shiboru carried his saber, wiping it lazily in the tall grass. His face was bleeding but he was unconcerned. He did not see me; none of them did. They could have been returning from a volleyball match, thoroughly enervated, sobered by near glory.
This is very fine, the animal quiet after the kill, the innocent, almost childlike air of the young men who have just had their sport, and the emotional paralysis of the observer, a Korean-Japanese soldier who had loved the girl. He would never allow himself to lose control of his feelings again, for love, like sex, or murder, was too dangerous. Hata—that is his name—was born a Korean, and adopted in Japan by Japanese parents. They were kind to him, gave him a chance to get on in life, and do them proud. He felt obliged to them, and to Japan, and to his superior officers, just as he would feel obliged later to America, where he ended up living, in a genteel little Westchester town named Bedley Run. “Doc” Hata (he ran a surgical instruments store), always polite, always obliging, wished to pass through life as much as possible without being noticed, like a man gliding under the surface of a suburban pool, “silent and unseen.”
Hata might easily have turned into a literary cliché, the polite, quietly inscrutable Oriental gentleman with a guilty wartime secret. He could have been no more than a name tag stuck onto an idea. Although Lee overdoes the literary metaphors a bit, reviving, for example, the image of Hata swimming in his pool, mimicking a kind of oblivion, long after the reader has got the point, his main character is fully alive, if that word applies to such a bloodless man. Alive but culturally at sea. He is Korean-Japanese-American, but does not really bear the characteristics of any of these—the mark, perhaps, of permanent dislocation.
* * *
The story begins in Bedley Run, the kind of well-mannered, plush, constipated place that the Taiwanese director Ang Lee caught so well in his film The Ice Storm, based on Rick Moody’s novel. The model for Moody’s town was New Canaan, Connecticut. This is the same kind of place. Hata, as the pillar of the local community, the master of gracious thank-you notes and a million polite but always distant attentions, has built himself a secluded suburban fortress, set in a neighborhood of antiquated stone walls, whitewashed horse fences, and fine properties hidden behind tall trees.
Hata is a committed bachelor. Only one woman, named Mary Burns, a well-bred, well-dressed, discreet, handsome, no longer very young country club woman, almost cracks his shell. They have a rather sedate affair, sleeping together “with a genuinely pleasing, if sober, conviviality.” But Hata eases his way out of any commitment in the end, and remains “sovereign.” Again, Lee imagines this with a mastery of understatement. They sit by the fire one day, Hata and Mary Burns, enjoying the warmth of the fire and their cups of tea, and Hata suggests that she might move in with him. And then:
When I spoke the words she had to stop sipping and put down her mug. Her usually placid expression broke open first in shock and then pleased wonder, and I knew I had slipped most horribly. In the ensuing quiet I had already sensed that cold pitch of gravity and dissolve, as though something was dying in a corner of the room, invisibly and wordlessly. I didn’t actually retract my suggestion, then or in the following days, nor did I repeat it, simply hoping instead for a gradual expiration. Of course, the whole thing did expire, and without further discussion, and almost exactly in the manner one would have wished.
As a kind of substitute for love, Hata showers people with kindness. This is because he is terrified of failing people. He has the ever-ready smile of the outsider, buying his acceptance through ingratiation. But it also helps to keep others at a distance, for it makes him more unassailable; the man who never needs help himself, but always dispenses it to others—hence, too, perhaps, the sobriquet of “Doc,” even though he was never a medical doctor. As his adopted daughter, Sunny, Korean-born like himself, tells Hata in a fit of rage, he burdens people with his generosity. And when terrible things happen to other people—fatal crashes, heart attacks, last-minute abortions—he feels as though he is a harbinger of death, which makes him even more solicitous, piling on ever greater debts of gratitude.
Emotional debt and emotional chilliness poison Hata’s relationship with Sunny, a serious blow, for she is his closest connection to another human life. Although the father-daughter relationship is well described, it is the one element in the story that sometimes feels contrived. Sunny’s role in the story is too obvious. The mechanics are too plainly visible. She is Hata’s penance for not being able to save the Korean “comfort woman.” He will save her instead. But obligation is not the same thing as love; in fact, one rather cancels out the other. Hata felt obligated to the Japanese parents who adopted him, but was incapable of loving them. Sunny cannot love him either, but refuses to be obligated. So she breaks free, by tearing down all the carefully constructed walls of his American-Oriental gentility. She goes off to live on the wrong side of town, in a derelict house full of lowlifes, petty thieves, and dopeheads.
One night Hata goes looking for his rebellious daughter, and sneaks up on her among the squatters, just as she is dancing half-naked in front of two drunken men, one a greasy punk named Jimmy Gizzi, the other a black man with an afro, who kisses her body as she sways to the music. Nothing suggests that Sunny is being forced. She is the mistress of her own degradation. For once, Hata’s feelings threaten to get out of control. He can hardly bear to watch, and wishes he could feel nothing for the girl. But then he slinks off, without having revealed his presence, soundlessly, “my blood already trying to forget, growing cold.”
There is a reconciliation of sorts between father and daughter. She has a child, after an earlier pregnancy ended in a late abortion—another smudge on their relationship, since Hata himself had insisted upon and actively assisted in that abortion. Her former black lover is the absent father. Hata feels a tenderness for the boy that he has never experienced before. But Sunny pretends to her son that Hata is just an old friend. Never having felt part of a family, she cannot pretend to have one now. Hata sometimes dreams of being reborn to “a brand-new life, fresh and hopeful and unfettered.” But all he and Sunny can hope for now is to take comfort in each other’s presence, for they are doomed to be among life’s orphans to the end. Hata finally sells his sheltered fortress by the pool, and decides to travel, perhaps far away, across the ocean, and come back to a place that is “almost home.”
* * *
Chang-rae Lee is an Asian-American, and his novel is about an Asian-American. This is not as exotic as it sounds; the story of America has often been told by immigrants or outsiders of one kind or another. The second book under review, by Ha Jin, is a more unusual piece of work. For Jin (“Ha” is a pen name which suggests a Manchurian connection) grew up in northeast China, served in the People’s Liberation Army, and only came to the US in 1985, when he was twenty-nine. His novel is set in China, during the 1970s. You might say it is a Chinese novel written in English.
The main character of Jin’s story is curiously similar to “Doc” Hata, except that he is a real medical doctor in the Chinese army. Like Hata, Lin Kong is an emotionally repressed man, always wanting to stick to the rules, and waiting for life to begin. Like Hata, he is afraid of letting anybody down and in the process lets almost everybody down. And yet the setting of the story could not be farther removed from the hushed gardens of Westchester.
Lin Kong works in an army hospital in the bleak, sooty, industrial northeast of China. As a young man he was pressed into a marriage with an uneducated village woman, who was so backward that she still had bound feet. He had agreed for traditional reasons: the match was arranged so that his wife could look after his sick mother. He had done the right filial thing. Naturally, love did not blossom; but that was not the point. Equally naturally, he began to have deeper feelings for his head nurse, named Manna, and she for him. The 1970s still being puritanical times, however, they could do nothing about it. Men were not even allowed to be seen with female comrades outside the hospital compound unless they were engaged or married. And so, year after year, during his leave, Dr. Lin returns to his wife’s village to ask for a divorce, and year after year she first consents and then refuses.
According to another hospital rule, a man can divorce his wife without her consent only after seventeen years of separation. After the eighteenth year Lin and his head nurse are able to marry at last, but by then it is already too late. They have waited too long. He can’t satisfy the younger woman’s passion. Disillusion seeps in. She gets seriously ill, and does not expect to live long. He feels guilty about the way he has handled his life, and yearns for the more comforting presence of the old peasant wife and their loving daughter, Hua. They would like him back too. So he waits for Manna to die, and longs for the day he will finally be able to go “home.” And just then Manna gets better again.
* * *
It is a bleak story told in cool and only occasionally awkward English prose. Jin describes a society caught between the constraints of half-surviving traditions and the even harsher chains of Communist rule. The dampers on Lin’s emotional life are not all of his own making. To live as a Chinese under Mao, and remain a decent, feeling human being, was an almost impossible task, for ethics were turned upside down: it was good to denounce your loved ones, and indeed bad to indulge in love at all, unless it was for the Party and the Chairman. Jin only deals with the political horrors of Chinese communism obliquely. The Cultural Revolution is already over when the story unfolds. And the fear of doing the wrong thing, of falling foul of Party rules, of thinking the wrong thoughts, and so on, has been internalized by his characters. They—especially Lin—are constantly watching their backs without even realizing it.
Despairing of his chances of getting a divorce, and feeling guilty about Manna becoming a hopeless spinster on his behalf, Lin introduces her to his unmarried cousin. The cousin is an artist and shows Manna his drawings for a children’s book. They are of a battle in which Vietcong troops wipe out Americans. One illustration shows a black soldier and a white officer yelling “help!” after being impaled on bamboo stakes. But he explains that the publisher has rejected them. He was told that Americans were no longer the main enemy. Now they wanted pictures criticizing Confucius, in line with the latest political campaign. Manna asks him why he doesn’t draw what he likes, and he says: “It’s so hard to predict the wind. If I take up a project now, by the time I’m done with it, it will probably be out of fashion.”
This is well observed. Jin doesn’t belabor the fact that getting the “fashions” wrong could mean serious trouble in China. But the tyranny of propaganda is clear, and so is its whimsical, even absurd nature. And yet the conversation sounds entirely normal; it is the way people talk even in abnormal circumstances. Indeed, it is the surface normality of his characters that makes the novel so arresting, the sense that “normal” life goes on, despite all the political madness. For human feelings can be repressed, sublimated, or distorted, but never eradicated entirely. Despite the official puritanism, the earthiness of Chinese life still emerges—in jokes among the nurses, or open talk among the officers. There are two descriptions of sexual acts in the novel, one brutal, the other loving. Both show different sides of repression.
* * *
Manna is raped by a fellow officer of Lin’s. He is everything Lin is not, a violent, macho figure with a raw appetite, who always goes for and gets what he wants, the kind of brute who will survive under any system. He ridicules Lin for not having sex with Manna. And so he rapes her, pushing her face down on the bed. She struggles, and he grunts: “‘Shut up! My cock is designed to blast into an old virgin like you.’ As he was speaking, he pressed his organ into her, thrusting away like a dog.” She decides not to say anything, for fear that no one will believe her anyway. After all, women had sex with officers and Party bosses all the time, in exchange for favors. Sex is just another currency. The rapist, one is not surprised to hear, goes on to get very rich, when money-making has become the latest Party line.
The other scene takes place at the hospital’s theater. The doctors and nurses gather to see an opera about the Sino-Japanese War of 1895 (wicked Japanese imperialism is always a worthy subject). Manna has kept a place for Lin beside her. Such indiscretion frightens Lin, but he sits down anyway and accepts a candy from her hand. “City girls, they’re so bold, he said to himself.”
The lights dim, fierce battles take place on stage, and her hand finds his in the dark.
Gently her fingertips stroked his palm, as though tracing his heart and head lines. He touched her hand and felt it was warm and smooth, without any callus…. She pinched the ball of his thumb a little, and in return he felt her pinkie, twisting it back and forth for a while. Then she caressed his wrist with her nail…. The two hands remained motionless for a moment, then turned over, engaged in a kind of mutual massage for a long time. Lin’s heart was thumping.
…When the curtain fell, all the lights came on and people continued shouting “Down with Japanese Imperialism!” Lin gazed into Manna’s eyes, which were gleaming intensely, her pupils radiant like a bird’s. Her moist lips curled with a dreamy smile as though she were drunk. Slightly dizzy himself, he stood up and hurried away for fear that others might see his face, which was burning hot.
To find this kind of erotic charge in Western literature you would have to go back many years. The lifting of social restraints in our society has been a liberation in many ways, but it has also caused a kind of literary, and indeed cinematic, inflation. We need greater and greater shock effects to feel anything much at all. Perhaps part of our intense interest in a novel such as this one, or indeed Chang-rae Lee’s, is that they have revived something that was once the stuff of drama in so much of our literature, namely the tension between social duties and human feelings.
The Japanese call them giri (obligation) and ninjo (human feelings). Kabuki plays, as well as many Japanese films, up until about ten years or so ago, and indeed popular songs, revolved around the contradiction of the two, and often ended in suicide as the only way out. The suicidal theme is played with in Chang-rae Lee’s novel in a subtle way: “Doc” Hata often dreams of oblivion: “…If I could trade all my years to be at some early moment and never go forward again, I would do so without question or any dread.” Of course, Westchester, or indeed Communist China, is not Japan. Giri and ninjo are played out in different ways in different places and different times. But what is so convincing about the novels under review is not their “Oriental” atmosphere, but quite the opposite: we can still recognize ourselves in characters and predicaments that might seem, superficially, exotic.
* * *
Minority voices have become popular in modern literature. Many large bookstores in Britain and America have special sections for gay or black books, which range from fiction to political or cultural theory. One will find Edmund White’s novels on the gay shelves, and James Baldwin’s on the black ones. Such categorizing can be dubious: Was Christopher Isherwood a “gay author” or a novelist who happened to have been homosexual? At any rate, minority voices often sound fresh, simply because they were not heard before, at least in the mainstream marketplace. Even mediocre writers can be of interest as messengers from unfamiliar cultures and social milieux. Some minority writers, especially from the Asian continent, deliberately play up the exoticism of their imaginary worlds, creating, in English, a kind of Orientalist universe, full of lurid and dreamlike imagery—not a “white” fantasy, perhaps, but a fantasy nonetheless. Others conform to our (and maybe their own) expectations of what other cultures are supposed to be like. This tends to be the case particularly when the authors are culturally at home in the West, even if their parents or grandparents were not. The very British writer Kazuo Ishiguro wrote two novels about Japan, full of delicacy and Oriental restraint, before moving on to Western subjects. He knew little about Japan, apart from what he managed to glean from the movies and his immigrant parents, but to start off with “Japanese” novels in English was a smart career move. The Oriental reputation, however, can stick.
The critical reception of Ishiguro’s first “English” novel, The Remains of the Day, about an English butler, was striking. Reviewers often described the butler as a geisha-like character, and his emotional constipation and sense of duty as very “Japanese” (as though all Orientals were emotionally challenged). Here, too, categorizing can be a problem. I have seen Ishiguro’s books shelved among Japanese literary classics in bookshops all over the world. Perhaps Ha Jin’s novel will become a “Chinese” classic. And yet such classifications do these fictions a disservice. For Jin is more than a cultural messenger. And Ishiguro is hardly a messenger at all. What Jin, Ishiguro, and indeed Chang-rae Lee have done, given their oddly angled perspectives, is reopen subjects which most Western authors can only treat with irony: marriage, family relations, the boundaries set by social obligations. It is no accident that Ang Lee, the Taiwanese filmmaker, was so good at dramatizing a Jane Austen novel. Her world is in some ways akin to the one he grew up in. And so is the world described by Ha Jin.
The difference between Jane Austen and authors writing about Asian subjects is, however, that her readers knew the society she described intimately. Irony was her main comic tool, but irony is only possible when references are shared. The same is true of wordplay and the use of slang: these can only be understood by readers who share a great deal of cultural knowledge. Much of Alfred Döblin’s masterpiece, Berlin Alexanderplatz, will be missed by those who cannot read German, and more specifically, the 1920s working-class Berlin version of German. The fact that it still holds up in translation is proof that it is indeed a masterpiece. But it is the kind of book Jin would be unable to write.
Ishiguro’s last novel was deliberately set in an unidentified country, a kind of generic West, which might have been anywhere. Amin Malouf, a Lebanese writer who lives in France and writes his novels in French, claims that he never uses wordplay or slang, because he is not French and wants to be understood in any language. In this kind of global literature there is little room for the linguistic and cultural playfulness that breathes so much life into books such as Berlin Alexanderplatz or indeed Joyce’s Ulysses. The fact that cultural references are either not shared or deliberately rejected by writers like Ha Jin or Kazuo Ishiguro explains the lack of irony in their novels. But you can get too much of irony and in-jokes. The so-called “Hampstead novel,” a well-trodden and often well-crafted British genre describing the social world of upper-middle-class Londoners, choked on them. And the same may be true of currently modish “New York novels,” which rarely stray very far from a small patch of urban landscape between Columbus Circle and Tribeca. By stripping their stories of irony, cultural allusions, and exotic ornament, writers with complicated backgrounds can restore a classical purity to our languages, and even bring us a little closer to the ground of our shared human condition. To pull this off with a Korean-Japanese-American character in Westchester is hard enough; to do it with a story set in the grimy northeast of China is a high achievement indeed.