Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Findley "Famous Last Words" and Eng's "The Gift of Rain"

Although very different in narrative style both Findley’s “Famous Last Words” and Eng’s “The Gift of Rain” share a remarkable similarity. They both deal with characters that, through no clear ideological affinity, end up involved with “the wrong side” in the Second World War.

Both protagonists’ voices reach us from the past: Findley’s Mauberley through his last words written on the walls of four rooms in an Austrian hotel on the Alps, Philip Hutton’s through several flash-backs that lead the reader back to the british colonial outpost of Penang, Malaya, in the 1930’s.

If both books stress anything about their characters “wrong” choices it is how easily they slip into them. Mauberley and Hutton never make conscious ideological choices, in fact, the philosophy of war seems a remote concern in either man’s life. It is rather through personal affections, a sense of loyalty of above all else to friends and family that they find themselves unwillingly striking points for the forces of the Axis.

In a sense both men are traitors. Mauberley is an american whose first rumblings of war find in exile in Italy, living what can only be called a love-hate relationship with his mentor Ezra Pound (Selwyn Mauberley is a fictional character named after Pound’s poem), while Philip Hutton is a child of a marriage between a wealthy british businessman and a chinese woman. Yet Mauberley ends up collaborating closely with nazi officials and Hutton with the japanese occupying forces.

How could they? Both “Famous Last Words” and “The Gift of Rain” succeed in extracting from the reader the benefit of hindsight; both place us square in the middle of confusion, conflicting reports, misinformation, and the absolute necessity of maintaining sanity and dignity by keeping daily life as normal as possible. The big decisions are being made elsewhere, by others. Mauberley and Hutton seem to be carried most of the time, by a stream of destiny more hypnotic and powerful than rational thought. But can there be rational thought in the midst of war? The luxury of certainty, moral and ideological, is a privilege of heads of state and commanding officers, both works seem to suggest. The rest of us has to muddle through, unaware of secret plans (or in the case of Mauberley, further confused by repeated hints of international conspiracies) oblivious to the fact that the war will be over in a few years, and that future will be a harsh judge – maybe more cruel in the long run, to those who stray from their rightful birth alliances, than to those who merely followed their leaders.

The theme of destiny is stronger in Tan Twan Eng’s “The Gift of Rain”, the underlying leitmotif even. For the teenager Philip Hutton finding balance has always been hard (harmony being the other narrative force of the book): he is after all, of mixed parentage in a colonial setting – colonies being so often more british than Britain – with two older brothers and a sister born of his father’s first marriage with a british woman. His other half, his chinese mother, ostracized by her family, dies when he is only for years old.

When he meets a japanese man to whom his father has let a small island facing their house, whispers of shared destiny start to sound in his ears. In fact, Philip will soon understand that Hayato Endo, who quickly becomes his sensei in the art of aikido and japanese language, is not only an important companion in this life – they have been friends before, namely in the Japan of the samurai, and it has always ended badly. This time will prove no different even though Philip Hutton will, for the longest time deny the hold of destiny, a knowledge imparted by fortune tellers, and finally his own chinese grandfather.

His decision seems clear headed, in first days of the japanese occupation: to offer his services to the enemy forces in return for protection for his family who, unlike most of the british expatriates have decided to stay on in Penang. However, Hutton soon finds himself embroiled in the more cruel aspects of occupation by a political force eager to provide a well-known surname as an ally: he takes part in the round-up of, often innocent, anti-japanese “criminals”, watches, unable to help, executions, tortures and beheadings and soon his sister and aunt will join the numbers of political assassinations.

Yet his relationship with Endo never falters. Even when Philip comes to hate him, even when he realizes many of their friendly outings have actually been military fact-finding missions, and that he has unwillingly provided information that will make the japanese attack a resounding success, they never cease to be close. For Endo is after all, against the war. He has merely struck a bargain with the Emperor: work for the government in return for protection and medical care for his father, a vocal anti-militarist. Endo and Hutton are therefore as similar as enemies can be: two men trained to kill who avoid violence, who work for warmongers to keep their families safe.

Even though Philip Hutton eventually turns into double-agent feeding information to the anti-japanese resistance, both men’s actions seem to beg the question: how many lives would each of us be willing to sacrifice in order to save our loved ones? How easy to calculate a tally in times of peace.

Findley’s character, on the other hand, will participate in zero hands on brutality (safe his own cruel execution). He travels in what we might call the jet-set of war, between celebrity writers, italian aristocracy, british heirs, american gold-diggers and well-groomed nazis. Yet his actions will prove no less important: after all, how many elegant soirées were the planning grounds of war atrocities?

Mauberley, being an american, and an orphan at that (the first scene of the book consists of the young Mauberley witnessing his father’s suicide) has no close of kin to protect. However he does have a most juvenile characteristic: he becomes so powerfully inebriated by strong personalities that he forgets himself, and seems to long only to bask in their solar presence. First the young russian aristocrat he meets in Shangai in the 1930’s, followed by a young and already fiercely ambitious Wallis Simpson, Ezra Pound, the italian aristocrat Isabella Loverso and even a nazi hit-man.

Most definitely an aesthete, Mauberley is the sort of flighty platonic lover (though his homosexuality is hinted at he never consummates any relationship, and seems as likely to become fascinated by women as men) who doesn’t even realize his friend Isabella is actually a very active double-agent. As long as he can play his part in closest entourage of Edward VIII and his girlfriend Wallis all seems right.
In many ways then, Mauberley is a perfect agent for whichever side can most easily sweep him off his feet. Once suitably mesmerized he will, as a little boy, try to please the object of his affection to very best of his abilities. After Edward VIII’s abdication Mauberley feels Simpson’s hurt as deeply as if it were his own: she did, after all, marry the title as much as the man…

And it just so happens that a group of concerned industrialists along with nazi and fascist officials would much rather have a monarchy as symbol of their uber-totalitarian regime than the charmless Hitler. It would be business as usual of course, but with a certain flair only bestowed on Kings and Queens (even the ones born in Pennsylvania).

Mauberley is accosted by the so-called Cabal, never fully understanding who or what lies behind his contacts. However they do mean to offer his friend Wallis a throne (throne of what, however, is the important questions he never thinks to ask), how can he deny his assistance?

Caught in a writer’s interpretation of a conspiracy, Mauberley is never quite up to speed on the events: “What confused me most was that having been set up by Isabella Loverso to expect some mighty, earth-shaking scheme, nothing of the sort emerged.”
In the end, Findley’s character only seems to grow up when he is being hunted down for his diaries in the end of the war, which is actually when the reader first meets him. In attempting desperately to tell his story he seems a man that finally understands the bigger picture (or is he, certain of his impending death, merely grasping at posthumous celebrity?)

The irony, is that this man completely removed from ideological concerns or even with morality, ends up being scrutinized by two american officers (poster boys for righteousness if there ever were). Captain Freyberg is half-deranged after witnessing the horrors of Dachau, and probably thinks anyone who ever served a glass of water to a german is assessory to genocide, while the bleary eyed Lieutenant Quinn is of the school of thought that forgives everyone if only they make a final confession.

Mixing real and fictional characters and events “Famous Last Words” is a tightly wound, punch in the face of historical fiction, while “The Gift of Rain” is a sprawling, cinematographical, russian epic of war narrative.

When our time comes, will we excuse ourselves through the eastern concept of destiny or through the western one of art? Better start thinking about it, if not for this lifetime…

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