The Remains of the Day

KazuoIshiguro_TheRemainsOfTheDay

I was elated on hearing the news that the British writer Kazuo Ishiguro won the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature. I am one of those ‘old school’ readers who bemoan the dying art of formal and elegant writing which has been replaced by a more casual and conversational style in modern times. Ishiguro’s books are written in impeccable English. It is a pleasure to read his exquisitely worded prose. The Remains of the Day, winner of the 1989 Man Booker Prize, was the first book I read by him. I saw the Merchant Ivory film based on the book starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson before I read it and although the film was excellent, the novel simply took my breath away. Imagine my surprise then on learning that he wrote this perfectly crafted masterpiece in a feverish rush in four weeks! I would like to pen my thoughts on this moving story as a humble congratulatory tribute to this fine author.

Written in first person narration, this is the story of Stevens, an English butler employed in Darlington Hall and among the last of a vanishing breed, who sets out on a motoring journey in the year 1956 to the West Country on the suggestion of his American employer, Mr. Farraday. Darlington House previously belonged to Stevens’ former employer, the now deceased Lord Darlington. The purpose of the journey is ostensibly to meet with Miss Kenton, now Mrs. Benn, a former housekeeper who had left the manor house twenty years ago on getting married and to propose that she rejoin the understaffed establishment. Stevens had earlier received a letter from her that hinted of an estrangement from her husband and of her wish to return as an employee.

The journey is both an outward and inward one for it also becomes a journey into the past. As he travels, he reflects on his time of service at Darlington Hall and recalls the dinner parties and the distinguished guests who frequented the great house of the era. The narrative is recounted in a stream of consciousness style in flash back form interspersed with moments from the present. He reminisces about his father, the butlers in other prominent houses, his loyalty to Lord Darlington and his relationship with Miss Kenton with whom he had many childish skirmishes.

But the truth is that he harbored romantic feelings for the housekeeper which he was unable to express even to himself let alone to her. For Stevens was so devoted to duty and decorum that serving his master was the primary objective of his life. And in his extreme dedication to service and obsequious subservience to his master, he denied his own feelings and consequently lost his only chance at love. He prides himself on his stoic dignity but this dignity doesn’t allow him to show the slightest bit of vulnerability even on the death of his father to which he reacts impassively.

Stephens is an unreliable narrator. We learn a lot more from what he conceals than from what he reveals. It is through the reactions of the other characters that we get an insight into the events. For instance we learn that Lord Darlington was used as a pawn by the Nazis and was labeled a Nazi sympathizer after World War II. Stevens once went as far as dismissing two Jewish maids on the urging of his master. He is aware that what he did was morally wrong and Miss Kenton even called him out for it but he justified his action in the name of dignity. What does Stevens do when he realizes in retrospect that he may have unwittingly trusted a man who had made grave mistakes? His entire self-worth came from serving a ‘great gentleman’ and to question Lord Darlington’s motives would shatter his self-image and render the purpose of his life meaningless as it would be tantamount to admitting that he in some way participated in the bigotry. With the constant dissimulation and the rationalization that follows, he exhibits a classic case of what the French existentialist Sartre referred to as “la mauvaise foi’’ or bad faith.

There is an interesting passage where the narrator describes the English countryside: “What is pertinent is the calmness of that beauty, its sense of restraint. It is as though the land knows of its own beauty, its own greatness, and feels no need to show it.” Stevens’ emotions are as controlled as the land around him and Ishiguro’s writing itself displays an understated elegance akin to the countryside. Stevens can barely understand himself but Ishiguro is able to peel the façade and make the readers discern the unfelt and the unsaid. An interesting device employed by Ishiguro is the use of the pronoun ‘one’ by Stevens which creates a distance as opposed to the more personal “I”.

“Naturally, when one looks back to such instances today, they may indeed take the appearance of being crucial, precious moments in one’s life; but of course, at the time, this was not the impression one had. Rather, it was as though one had available a never-ending number of days, months, years in which to sort out the vagaries of one’s relationship with Miss Kenton; an infinite number of further opportunities in which to remedy the effect of this or that misunderstanding.”

Although Stevens is a tragic character, the book starts off as a delightful comedy of manners- the fastidious anachronistic butler who was once entrusted with the task of talking about the birds and the bees to Lord Darlington’s godson is now disconcerted by his American employer who has a penchant for bantering- and it evolves gradually into a poignant story of loss and regret. As Stevens reminisces, here and there glimpses of truth emerge leading to the climax when the mask slips a little as he faces the truth that he has been trying to avoid and reflects on the remains of the day. And when Stevens remembers the moment when Miss Kenton confessed to him that she wanted to marry him, he cries out in a moment of lucidity: “ Indeed- why should I not admit it?- in that moment my heart was breaking.” And in that moment, my heart broke for Stevens and for what could have been and never was and never will be and I was reduced to tears. It broke for Miss Kenton too and her frustrated attempts to reach out to Stevens on several occasions.

Miss Kenton however lives with more authenticity and integrity than Stevens and has her family life to look forward to. But Stevens is the more pitiable character- a man so stunted emotionally that he doesn’t know who he is under the carefully cultivated layers of decorum and propriety – sort of like the silver he so meticulously polishes till it is shiny and sparkling with no trace of tarnish . Dignity may be a lofty ideal but it also encompasses sacrifice as he realizes in one heartbreaking moment of admission when his raw emotions come gushing out:

“Lord Darlington wasn’t a bad man. He wasn’t a bad man at all. And at least he had the privilege of being able to say at the end of his life that he made his own mistakes. . . . He chose a certain path in life, it proved to be a misguided one, but there, he chose it, he can say that at least. As for myself, I cannot even claim that. You see, I trusted. I trusted in his lordship’s wisdom. All those years I served him, I trusted that I was doing something worthwhile. I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really – one has to ask oneself – what dignity is there in that?”

All along while reading, I had the urge to grab Stevens by his stiff collar and shake him out of his self-deception but when he finally showed his human and vulnerable side, I broke down along with him.

The clever title of the novel suggested by a friend of Ishiguro’s refers to the concept of Freud’s Tagesreste ( day’s residues)- memories awakening to bring to consciousness the residual debris or the repressed matter which would otherwise remain unconscious. The remains of the day could mean assessing what remains of your life after examining the past- the despair of a life not lived fully but it could also imply looking forward to the future to decide how you want to live the remainder of your life.

This story evokes a certain milieu in England with its class dynamics of the “upstairs” and the “downstairs” and it is as much the story of a changing England through the inter-war and post war years , the last days of Empire and the rise of America, as it of the private epiphany of Stevens. In fact through the quintessentially English butler, Ishiguro has captured the universal experience- who among us hasn’t wondered if the road not taken would have led to more happiness and fulfillment?

Congratulations to Mr. Ishiguro on this well-deserved award! Although I’m happy that such a prestigious honor has been bestowed on him, the award is secondary. Nobel Prize or not, I’ll always admire him for his amazing creativity and talent. He has been blessed with the gift of writing and his writing, in turn, is a gift to our world.

*Cover Photo: By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4568066

 

 

 

 

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Quinceañera

Quinceneara

April is the month dedicated to poetry here in the United States. On the last day of this month long celebration of verse, I am sharing my thoughts on a poem penned by Judith Ortiz Cofer that caught my attention.

Quinceañera is a poem about the coming of age ceremony of a girl who turns 15. It’s one of the most important rites of passage in a young girl’s life in Latin communities and has its roots in both indigenous and European Christian traditions. It’s supposed to be a special ceremony to mark the transition from girlhood to womanhood and to present the fifteen year old to the community and thereby increase her prospects for marriage. Quinceañera literally means a fifteen year old girl in Spanish. In recent times the celebration has become as ostentatious and ornate as a wedding featuring long guest lists, photo shoots, lavish decorations and sometimes even a mariachi band. Although it’s a momentous occasion looked forward to by many girls, the tone of Cofer’s poem is dark and depressing accentuating the fact that it’s also a time fraught with anxieties and awkwardness for the growing girl.

Judith Ortiz Cofer was a Latina writer who in her poems and essays wrote about the Puerto Rican immigrant experience in the US mainland. She herself straddled two worlds: that of Puerto Rico where she was born and returned frequently to spend extended time at her grandmother’s house and the states of New Jersey and Georgia where she lived in the US. The movement to and fro between two cultural spaces shapes her work. In her memoir, The Cruel Country, she describes how her mother hated becoming a quinceañera “… which in those days meant announcing your status as a potential wife-nothing like the social extravaganzas of today’s young Latinas, but a serious passage into adulthood. My mother said that when she turned fifteen, she began her training in domestic functions such as childcare and cooking, which didn’t interest her, and she was not allowed to play ball again.” In another of her memoirs, Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood , in which this poem is featured, Cofer writes that to her grandmother, she was as a quinceañera ,”a fifteen year old trainee for the demands of marriage”.

Quinceañera

My dolls have been put away like dead
children in a chest I will carry
with me when I marry.
I reach under my skirt to feel
a satin slip bought for this day. It is soft
as the inside of my thighs. My hair
has been nailed back with my mother’s
black hairpins to my skull. Her hands
stretched my eyes open as she twisted
braids into a tight circle at the nape
of my neck. I am to wash my own clothes
and sheets from this day on, as if
the fluids of my body were poison, as if
the little trickle of blood I believe
travels from my heart to the world were
shameful. Is not the blood of saints and
men in battle beautiful? Do Christ’s hands
not bleed into your eyes from His cross?
At night I hear myself growing and wake
to find my hands drifting of their own will
to soothe skin stretched tight
over my bones,
I am wound like the guts of a clock,
waiting for each hour to release me.

The poem is written in free verse in the first person and starts with the image of death, a jarring contrast to the picture of dolls that represent early life. We know that the poem is about a fifteen year old thanks to the title. The speaker/narrator is probably going to take her dolls with her to her marital home in the future and pass them down one day to her own children. The Last Doll or La Ultima Muneca is one of the symbolic traditions of the quinceañera ceremony. The quinceañera gives her last doll to a younger sister or cousin or saves it to pass down to her own children. In some cultures, the doll is tossed over the girl’s shoulder to young girls who have not yet turned fifteen, much like a bride flings her bouquet to young maidens. The ceremony then represents the death of her childhood.

There are many other images of death evoked in the poem with the words “skull”, “poison”, “blood” and “battle”. The satin slip shows that she will be wearing a fancy dress for the rich celebration over the slip or that she will now start needing a slip and will have to dress modestly. The poet resorts to poetic devices like simile and alliteration in spite of the choppy construction. The breaks in lines and stanzas may be a device to show the confusion and frenzy in the mind of the girl.

We have more harsh images of death with the words “skull “and “nails”. Her mother seems to handle her with firmness and hurts her while braiding her hair. The words “twisted” and” tight” suggest constriction. Maybe she is oblivious to the girl’s needs or she wants to send her the message that life will be hard.

Her black hairpins could be a sign of mourning . Ironically the ceremony is supposedly a joyous occasion but she is also lamenting the loss of childhood and dreading the arrival of womanhood with responsibilities.

She has to start doing her own laundry and other chores. The blood symbolizes the onset of menstruation, a sudden and dramatic moment in a girl’s life. She has to start washing her stained clothes furtively as this natural biological process is viewed with shame. Menstrual taboos exist in many cultures around the world with a notion of impurity attached to menstruation. Her world shrinks but it also expands at the same time as the rite of passage of menarche places new expectations on her from her family and from society at large.

Why is the blood of dying men and Christ considered sacred but not the life giving blood of women? There is so much hypocrisy in our patriarchal culture surrounding menstrual blood. The rhetorical questions and the repetition of the words ”as if” reinforce her anguish.

She is growing rapidly and is aware of the changes in her body which bring about a sexual awakening too, reinforced by the alliteration “soothe stretched skin”. The simile “wound like the guts of a clock” shows that she is anxious and needs a release, both a physical and an emotional one.

The poem suggests that being on the threshold of adulthood is not necessarily the best time in a woman’s life. Traditionally the fifteen year old was presented to society as eligible for marriage and trained for the duties and demands of family life. Needless to say, the custom is outdated and losing its relevance and being celebrated instead as a lavish birthday bash.

Have you participated in a memorable rite of passage ceremony in your life? How meaningful was it to you and how did you feel about the transition and being the center of attention? Interestingly, rituals marking the initiation of menstruation have existed in many cultures since time immemorial. My grandmother like Cofer’s “Mama” was a traditional woman who religiously followed all customs. I had a similar ceremony when I was a teenager. I was dressed as a bride and almost died of embarrassment when relatives came up to me and congratulated me on becoming a woman. Maybe that’s why this poem struck a chord. Or rather a nerve.

 

A Book About Books

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Chinese Propaganda Poster- “Scatter the old world, build the new.”

Could you picture a world devoid of books, a world where books are forbidden and where free expression in the arts and literature is restricted? We take the freedom of the written word for granted. Yet, there are places around the globe where books have been banned in the past and sadly still are subject to censorship in our present day world. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress ( Balzac et la Petite Tailleuse Chinoise) by Dai Sijie is a book about books and a beautiful ode to literature. It’s a tender story of friendship and survival through the transformative power of literature, set in a very somber period in Chinese history and loosely based on the author’s own life.

The year is 1971 and we are in the mountainous countryside of China during the cultural revolution. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was a movement initiated in the sixties by Mao Zedong to implement Communism and to eliminate capitalist influences and also to root out China’s ancient cultural heritage and the Four Olds: old customs, old culture, old habits , old ideas. To achieve this objective, places of worship and of historic interest were vandalized and ancient artifacts and relics which were once treasured, ruthlessly destroyed. Needless to say, it was a period of great unrest, turmoil and violence. Rapes, murders and suicides were commonplace. The young children of bourgeois intellectuals were banished from urban centers to rural areas in order to be purged of western ideas and to be re- educated by the peasants. The youngsters or China’s ‘lost generation’ were deprived not only of educational opportunities but also the right to live with their families and they experienced feelings of alienation brought on by the sudden exile.

In this tumultuous era, two young boys, a nameless narrator and his friend Lou, both sons of doctors, are sent for re- education to Phoenix Mountain in China. They are separated from their educated and well- off families and forced into agricultural labor. Their tasks include working in dangerous coal mines and carrying buckets filled with excrement on tortuous and slippery trails. They hope that they would be one among the three in a thousand to be sent back to the city despite their parents being deemed enemies of the people. They have to use their ingenuity and wit to get the better of the villagers and the village headman. They meet the little seamstress, a local girl who has not been exposed to books, music or the western way of life and both fall head over heels in love with her although it is Luo who manages to catch her attention. The boys discover that one of their friends from the city, Four Eyes, who has been sent to a neighboring village for re-education has a suitcase of forbidden books in his possession. They succeed in getting him to lend them a translation of a book by Balzac in exchange for a favor and once they have had a taste of the formidable French author, they have an insatiable thirst to read more.

“Picture, if you will, a boy of nineteen, still slumbering in the limbo of adolescence, having heard nothing but revolutionary blather about patriotism, Communism, ideology, and propaganda all his life, falling headlong into a story of awakening desire, passion, impulsive action, love, of all the subjects that had, until then, been hidden from me.”

When Four Eyes becomes the lucky one to get the opportunity to leave Phoenix Mountain, Luo and the narrator devise a plan to steal his suitcase of hidden books before his departure. They succeed by means of their cunning and resourcefulness and their lives are changed forever. The books have a profound effect on them and on the little seamstress too for the boys enact scenes from the books to her. So just as the boys are being re-educated to the ways of the peasants, the little seamstress is re-educated, in turn, by them in this Pygmalion like story.

I admire the author’s skill in managing to weave an enchanting tale interspersed with moments of comedy in spite of portraying a very grim period in history. The book is told from the perspective of the narrator except for the last few chapters where the point of view shifts. I don’t understand the rationale behind the change in structure as it disrupts the flow of the text. I was also a little disappointed by the conclusion. The romantic in me would have preferred a fairy tale ending for a story which reads like a fairy tale but on reflection, I can see why the ending is what it is and why it would not have been as impactful otherwise. I was a little taken aback by one sacrilegious act which seemed to negate the premise of the book. But I will not reveal anything more and risk ruining the plot for future readers.

The book transported me to a time and place foreign to me and gave me an insight into the political and cultural upheaval in the China of that period. I firmly believe that the best way to understand history is through travel or literature rather than following a bland textbook. But I mostly enjoyed the story for celebrating three pursuits close to my heart – storytelling, translating and reading. Luo and the narrator entertain the villagers by enacting stories of films they’ve watched and embellish their performances with the aid of their fertile imaginations. Luo laments the inevitable demise of this art form as people have moved beyond the age of The Arabian Nights. The art of storytelling is even more threatened in our modern digital world. The book is also a tribute to the art of translation. First of all, this book is itself a translation and the translator, Ina Rilke, has beautifully rendered the translation from the original French to English with her richly descriptive and evocative language. Secondly, the boys devour books by Flaubert, Gogol, Balzac and Dumas translated into Chinese in spite of the cultural differences, reinforcing the universal appeal of literature. I was reminded of my college days in India when my friends and I read Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Camus and other authors in translation. I am grateful to translators for making an entirely different canon of literature available to readers all over the world.

Finally, it’s a book celebrating the love of books. Books allow us to escape and make life more bearable. The narrator, moved by Romain Rolland’s Jean-Christophe declares:

“I was carried away, swept along by the mighty stream of words pouring from the hundreds of pages. To me it was the ultimate book: once you had read it, neither your own life nor the world you lived in would ever look the same.”

I could say the same about Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. It’s an unforgettable book that stays with you forever and rekindles your love of reading.

Bound by Convention

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A Nu shu artwork. (Photo from http://www.womenofchina.cn

 

I am fascinated by books that transport me to an era and culture different from my own. If that culture happens to be Chinese, my reading pleasure is twofold. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See is one such book that not only satisfied my wanderlust by transplanting me to southern Hunan province in 19thcentury China, but also immersed me completely in the experience of growing up as a woman in a rigidly patriarchal society. I was part of a cloistered world where a woman’s conduct was governed by the Confucian doctrines of the Three Obediences: “When a girl, obey your father; when a wife, obey your husband, when a widow, obey your son.”and the Four virtues: “ Be chaste and yielding, calm and upright in attitude; be quiet and agreeable in words; be restrained and exquisite in movement; be perfect in handiwork and embroidery.” In this environment where women were accorded an inferior status and expected to be subservient to men, See explores the intense friendship of two peasant girls from their daughter days to hair pinning days, rice and salt days to sitting quietly, in other words, from their girlhood to married life to old age.

Lily and Snowflower are two young girls , from different walks of society who are ‘old sames’ paired in a laotong relationship. A laotong is a contractual friendship arranged by a matchmaker between girls of two different villages just like an arranged marriage. Girls of suitable birth who may share birthdays, birth signs and birth order or other traits in common are brought together in an eternal friendship. A marriage is only good for ‘bed business’, the rather crude but practical manner in which lovemaking is described in the novel. You have to look elsewhere for an emotional connection. Many young women have a community of a sworn sisterhood in their natal homes where they sing songs together, embroider, exchange stories and share companionship .The sworn sisterhood is dissolved at the time of marriage but the laotong relationship is a lifelong commitment. Being a laotong improves your social standing and makes you a more eligible catch for marriage.

Lily is prized for her dainty and exquisite golden lily feet. Footbinding was a strange and barbaric practice that was started in the royal court in China and gradually became widespread in the rest of the country and among all social classes. Mothers bound their daughters’ feet in order to attract a wealthy match. The girls were around six years old when they started the process that would take two to three years to complete. The four little toes were bent underneath the sole of the foot and tied with bandages. The bandages were periodically removed and tightened till the heel was twisted and reshaped. The girls suffered excruciating pain which could last months or even years.

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A woman with normal feet next to a woman with bound feet.

Their muscles atrophied and the less fortunate ones got infections like gangrene. Some like Lily’s third sister, died from the ordeal. The girls who survived were disfigured and crippled for life. They would limp and couldn’t walk long distances and had to be carried by men. They developed a peculiar faltering gait which was considered a sexual turn on to men. Footbinding became a way of controlling women and keeping them confined to their homes so they wouldn’t go astray. They were physically incapable of moving far from their homes or the ‘inner realm’ and thus less likely to cheat on their men. They lived in seclusion and were kept subjugated. They learned to tolerate pain and suffering. Of course, it wasn’t just the feet that were bound. The girls were tied to male conventions of beauty, to matrimony, to domesticity and to maternity.

In this sequestered world, women reached out to each other for solace and support. They communicated through nu shu, a syllabic script used in Jiangyong County in Hunan province. Nu shu was used exclusively by women to compose letters, songs and stories either written on paper or on a fan or embroidered on a handkerchief. Lily and Snow Flower communicate by means of a silk fan on whose folds they take turns writing their thoughts to each other. The fan chronicles all the important events in their life, both joyous and sorrowful. The nu shu gave the girls a voice and a chance to soar in spite of being bound. Their lives become more expansive just like the delicate unfolding of the fan. Lily observes: “Our nu shu was a means for our bound feet to carry us to each other, for our thoughts to fly across the field…”

The girls establish a tender connection through correspondence and through Snow Flower’s numerous visits to Lily’s home but Snow Flower’s family does not reciprocate the invitations much to Lily’s mother’s ire. At times their friendship has homoerotic overtones not uncommon in a gender segregated society. The girls go through all the trials and tribulations of life together. With marriage comes a total reversal of fortunes. Lily marries into a wealthy family of good social status but due to circumstances beyond her control, Snow Flower is married to a poor butcher and has to endure hardship and abuse. The sweet and sensitive Lily changes gradually into a different person when her position is cemented as matriarch of the family. There arises a misunderstanding between the two friends that threatens their strong friendship and whether they reconcile or not is the crux of the remainder of the plot.

My main criticism of the book is that the latter half seems rushed and melodramatic. It wasn’t the story of the complex friendship that caught my fancy as much as the insight into ancient Chinese history and culture which was an eye-opening experience. I felt a piercing sadness to learn about the different ways daughters were demeaned within their own community. Their worth only came from their ability to procreate and to produce sons. The protagonists deal with the agonizing pain of foot binding, experience great sorrow on leaving their parents’ homes, endure cruelty in the homes of their in- laws, face the pressure to bear sons, lose children in childbirth and accept their husbands’ concubines. You wonder why strong women like Lily perpetuate the patriarchy by following old traditions. Foot binding was no different from customs like forced marriages, dowry and FGM where women are often complicit in the patriarchal oppression. The rebel in me would have liked to see Lily stand up to injustice. But she ends up being a stickler for rules and is herself ‘bound’ by convention. I understand her powerlessness and realize that being dutiful is her only coping mechanism. At the most Lily can follow her mother in law’s sage maxim: “Obey, obey, obey, then do what you want.”

The atrocities committed on the women made me reflect on my own life and the choices I’ve made and appreciate the freedoms I enjoy and take for granted. Lily and Snow Flower’s world may seem like a world very foreign to our own but yet we can all relate to it to some extent. If you’ve ever felt undervalued as a woman in any way, if you’ve been expected to defer to a man unworthy of your respect, if you’ve taken pains to be beautiful whether going for cosmetic surgery, waxing body hair or wearing stilettos that hurt your feet, if you’ve endured a disparaging remark from an in-law, if you’ve heard the words ‘ I hope this time you have a boy’, then this achingly beautiful novel will strike a chord with you.