Saturday, 5 October 2013

Reading Matters

"Reading Matters"- yes, I know this pun sounds a little bit Partridgean- but I like it, so there. I finished a couple of novels recently which I was impressed by, and I wanted to write some brief lines about them. The first one was In Arcadia, by the Nigerian writer Ben Okri. I had not been particularly impressed by the blurb and the premise for the book (more fool me), but upon reading the first few pages I quickly became absorbed.

The basic plot of Okri's novel is that a group of TV and film-makers receive instructions from a mysterious and elusive individual named Malasso to travel from London to Paris and along the way create a film to mark aspects of their journey. The book and its themes were inspired by two paintings by Nicolas Poussin: "Et in Arcadia Ego" (Roughly translated, Even in Arcadia, There Am I) and most notably, the second painting under this title, known also as the "Arcadian Shepherds", which hangs in the Louvre. 
Poussin's painting which is central to the themes of Okri's novel
Indeed, the Louvre and the painting itself prove to be the final destination for Okri's group of travellers, or should we say 'pilgrims'. For the novel is essentially a modern pilgrimage story, and along the way the principal characters reveal aspects of themselves as they consider the purpose and meaning of existence, the pursuit of happiness in life and what constitutes their own personal "Arcadia" (which could be a material or spiritual utopia). The primary character and principal narrator is a TV executive named Lao, who begins the novel as angry and cynical, drinking heavily and behaving obnoxiously to those around him, before experiencing a spiritual re-awakening. The plot is effectively secondary to Okri's philosophical discussions and ruminations upon the nature and meaning of existence. The account of their journey provides a framework for this, and I found it fascinating and thought-provoking.

The second novel I read was When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro. It was a strange, haunting novel set in Shanghai and London during the 1920s and 1930s, on the eve of the Second World War. The sole -and unreliable- narrator of this novel is Christopher Banks, an English detective who grew up in Shanghai. He is forced to leave China when he is still a child when both his parents mysteriously disappear. In England, he attends school and reaches adulthood as an orphan, and yet it is clear the mystery of his parents vanishing influences his choice of vocation as a detective. After making his name in London and becoming part of high society, he decides to return to Shanghai and solve the mystery of what happened to them.

The novel is fascinating because of the sinister undercurrent that lurks behind and beneath the old-fashioned dialogues and mannerisms of its protagonists, not to mention Christopher Banks' obviously unreliable recollections of the past and dubious narration of the present day; at times he seems to have a fragile grasp upon reality. Old school friends remember him as strange and silent where he is convinced he had many friends and fully participated at school; he reacts with anger when told he showed weakness as a child; he seems to have difficulty trusting women and forming relationships with them; a young girl whom he adopts and becomes the guardian for, tells him she must "look after him" when he is older; later on in the novel, he seems oblivious to the conflict taking place around him between the Chinese and Japanese soldiers as he desperately searches for his parents; he confuses a wounded Japanese soldier with Akira, his childhood friend from Shanghai- although as readers we are never quite certain of the reality in this instance. There is a particularly disturbing and tragic scene in the novel at this point, which takes place within the bombed Chinese slums of Shanghai known as The Warren.

The majority of critics and even Ishiguro himself do not regard this book as his best work, but I found the novel moving and extremely affecting, particularly as it reaches its conclusion. The only criticism I would offer is that occasionally the prose style grated with me: some of the dialogues were stilted as if extracted from a 1930s black and white film; one or two sections were unintentionally- not intentionally, surely?- humorous; at times the narrator Christopher Banks' apparent lack of self-awareness and grasp upon reality seemed too far-fetched to be convincing. Aside from that, I thought it was a fine novel- and I found myself still thinking about it after I had put it down. In fact, that is true for both of the novels I have talked about here, (without giving away too many crucial spoilers!), and so I would definitely recommend both of them.

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