Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Sunday, January 06, 2019

Tan Twan Eng: The Gift of Rain

Beginning with the Iliad, gay romance and martial art have shared a long history together. And the  mentor/lover relationship is found in  the warrior class of  Medieval Japan as well as Bronze Age Greece.

As with Tan's second novel, this first one centers around an aristocratic Japanese super-hero -- in this case  a direct disciple of Ueshiba Morihei, the founder of Aikido - presented here as both a peerless martial art and a sublime spiritual discipline.

As in  the second novel, that hero is described by a Straits Chinese senior citizen recalling a youthful romantic relationship.  (though in this story the narrator is only half Chinese - the other parent being British).  Apparently the author, himself Straits Chinese,  also has a passion for Samurai culture.

As in the second novel, this story is set in northwest Malaysia, and the main characters, like the author himself, grew up on the island of  Penang.  But in both novels, ethnic Malaysians - or any other south Asians - do not appear. These are stories about the upper class -- which is British and Chinese -- during the Japanese occupation.  And the main theme seems to be puzzlement:  how can aristocratic Japanese be so spiritual, sensitive and aesthetic -- while also being so monstrous and cruel.  A puzzlement that well reflects the narrator's mixed British-Chinese heritage.  As a Christian, the narrator would believe in a moral universe created for a spiritual drama in which every human soul plays an essential role.  Buddhism, Taoism, and just about every other religious practice, however, are beyond Good and Evil.  Outside specific social obligations, human are expected to behave no better or worse than insects in a forest. 

And as in the second novel, the old narrator has led a productive but lonely existence in the four or five decades that followed the death or disappearance of the Japanese hero. No lovers, no close friends, no children, no family.

There's a lot of silliness in this story - especially regarding lost shrines in the jungle and flashbacks to a previous life. But perhaps that is appropriate for teenage romance - and for a narrator who has apparently been damaged by his experience.  I can't imagine being forced to watch as anyone, especially a close relative, was being tortured to death.  I would never recover either - except, perhaps, by becoming a reclusive monk.

The mood throughout both of Tan's novels is the melancholy that accompanies a sense of loss. Every good - and every really bad -  thing happened in the past