Friday, March 11, 2016

The Japanese Lover

The Japanese Lover
Isabelle Allende, 2015.

I was looking for confident, grown-up, sophisticated writing, and as usual Allende provides that.  However, it is just not sufficient.

The novel's premise and indeed, storyline, is fascinating.  Alma, a young Jewish girl, is dispatched to safety from wartime Poland by her parents, into the arms of a distant but loving uncle and his family, the wealthy Belascos of San Francisco.  The girl knows, with precocious and insightful intuition, that she will never see her parents again.  In her new life she works hard to attach herself to her cousin, trying to recreate the adoring and close relationship she had with her brother in Poland.  Her cousin's best friend is Ichimei, the son of the household's Japanese gardener, who becomes the eponymous Japanese lover.

The novel traces Alma's maturing into a young woman, her eventual marriage, and her decades long affair with Ichimei.  There is a parallel thread of the young companion she hires, Irina, herself a displaced and damaged refugee, and her involvement with the Belascos.  Along the way there is a description of the shameful Japanese internment as experienced by Ichimei's family.

In this way the novel is similar to Allende's other books, that cover generations and national histories.  But somehow the story is curiously flat.  There are pages of descriptions of Alma's clandestine passion for Ichimei, but no passion itself.  The story is told from the vantage point of the end of Alma's life, when she seems aloof, condescending, and dried up; unattractive central characters are hard to take in a novel of this sort.  Irina -- bright, energetic, sympathetic -- could have been the grease for the skids, but her story is allowed to peter out.

In the end I found I had lost interest in Alma, and the other characters were not fully developed enough for me to be hooked.  There was also a strange anachronistic quality to the writing which further created distance.  Somehow it felt like the story belonged to the 1940s, or even to the mid 1800s, and from time to time I would be jarred by references to very current dates and events, up to and including this decade.  (Interestingly, the cover art reinforces this sense.)

Most disappointing, though, was the description of the relationship between Alma and Ichimei.  Here is rich material, that can be mined for all the nuances of the potentially explosive differences of class, race, religion and national origin -- exactly the kind of material that D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forester and Henry James mined to such great effect, in a prose and style that seems to be from the same epoch as Allende's.  But all of this is skimmed over, touched on lightly or in passing, as if it were a bad romance novel -- but without the bodice heaving.

Mar 2016

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Leap Year

Leap Year, dir. Anand Tucker, 2010.
Starring Amy Adams and Matthew Goode.

What a waste of Amy Adams.  How could she go from her luminous, affecting, authentic performance in, say, Junebug, to this forced cliche?  She tries her best to carry the film, since her co-star, Matthew Goode, is just good looks and fumbled, mumbled Irish accent.  The camera lingers on the curve of her cheek and the sheen in her eyes, but in the end it's hopeless.

This movie adheres pretty slavishly to the classic romcom roadtrip plotline (spoiled rich girl meets cynical laconic man who falls for her during the course of numerous plot twists and reversals).  Since It Happened One Night there have been probably dozens of retellings, including in Bollywood.  Some of them felt quite fresh at the time (such as A Sure Thing, in 1985, with John Cusack at the height of his ragged, boyish charm).

Perhaps the only thing different here was that the female lead gets most of the screentime.  But otherwise predictable, boring, and uninspired.   In fact, it seems Matthew Goode went on record as saying that he reckoned this film was the year's worst, and he took the part only as it allowed him to fly back to London on weekends.

What a waste.


Saturday, June 20, 2015

Tokyo Fiancee

Tokyo Fiance
Amelie Nothomb, 2007.
Trans. from French (Ni d'Eve, Ni d'Adam) by Alison Anderson.

A small colossus of modern Orientalism, of modern prejudiced outsider interpretations of the East.

Amelie is a young Belgian woman in Tokyo, teaching French to Rinri, a Japanese university student a couple of years her junior.   She finds him kind, charming, sweet, genuine and very attentive.  She embarks on an affair; accepts his engagement proposal although she has little intention of following through with marriage; and when the affair has run its course, tells him that she is leaving the following day to visit her sister in Belgium, although she has no intention of returning.

Oh, how liberated she feels, despite all the anguish she causes!  Oh, how easy it is to brush aside his gentle, implied entreaties to return when he calls her in Belgium!  Oh, what a liberated, "strong", "honest", "intelligent" woman she is!  (Quotes are taken from admiring reviews in the Western press).

This is truly a novel where glibness has obscured soullessness.  The book is about how easily a pretty, manipulative, self-absorbed young white woman can wrap her fingers around a dazzled Japanese boy.  Yes, she calls him "the boy", which is patronizing at best, and at worst as if he were her houseboy in a colonial African household.  He has no depth whatsoever, except as a vehicle to explore Amelie's fairly standard and stereotypical observations about Japanese society and gender relations.   (I myself have visited Tokyo over a dozen times, including stints over 2 weeks in length, and thus have some perspective on this.)

Rinri has been awfully good for Amelie -- he is rich, feeds her vanity, and serves as cultural interpreter as well as a vessel to be filled with her naive, superficial views of Japanese culture.  (And of course, provides material for a book.)  But Amelie herself has learned nothing by the end of the book -- no deeper insight into her own cultural prejudices, privileges, and petty narcissism -- ultimately making her own sojourn in Tokyo a waste.

This book is existential proof that a quick turn of phrase, some snappy observations, and lyrical exoticism cannot hide self-indulgence, self-absorption, ethnic stereotyping and borderline racism.

It is simply breathtaking to see the praise heaped on this pile of ethnocentric vanity by the Western press and mainstream reviewers.  Since so much of the book is a paean to French culture and Francophilia, it is unsurprising that it was published by the support of the French Ministry of Culture, or that it has garnered so much praise in France.  But it is hard to understand the rest.

June 2015