A Pure Woman. Lloyd Jones, Hand Me Down World

Lloyd Jones, Hand Me Down World. John Murray, 2011. First published in New Zealand in 2010.

This is a love story and a ghost story.

Jones HMDWorld coverIt tells, in differing, often conflicting versions and recensions – as in the Akutagawa story on which the Kurosawa film ‘Rashomon’ was based – how a young African woman has no real identity, no substance in the eyes of Europeans she meets; even her name used later in the novel is the one she stole from a woman she encounters in Italy, with tragic consequences: Ines, one form of the name Agnes – which significantly derives from the Greek for ‘pure’ or ‘holy’. Ines, like Tess, is a Pure Woman.

The first sections of this gripping novel by the New Zealander Lloyd Jones (who was shortlisted for the Booker for Mister Pip in 2007) consist of the multiple accounts from those who knew her at the start of her quest to reach Berlin. The first is a co-worker at a swanky tourist hotel on the Arabian Sea patronised mostly by white Europeans, where it was a prerequisite for the staff that they shed all vestiges of past or identity: as human beings they were as substanceless as ghosts. Even this colleague/friend who knew her for some years never learned her name, where she came from in Africa, or even her birthday:

When we spoke of home we spoke of somewhere in the past. We might be from different countries but the world we came into contained the same clutter and dazzling light. All the same traps were set for us.

Here the language conveys some of the register of a non-native speaker of English, shot through with the poetic sensibility of Lloyd the artificer who filters these forensic, mediated voices of testimony through his own artist’s sensibility to present them to us. It’s an astonishingly accomplished act of multiple ventriloquism and narrative dexterity and ingenuity. In this quotation he conveys how, for women like these, the tourist resort and its hotel is a playground for the privileged guests, but dangerous for them if they forget their place, to be invisible:

You have to leave your past in order to become hotel staff…you had to be like the palms and the sea, pleasing to the eye. We must not take up space but be there whenever a guest needed us.

Lloyd’s is the heartbreakingly familiar one to those of us in affluent Europe of the desperate people risking their lives in unseaworthy boats to make the dangerous crossing to southern Italy from north Africa. Even if the boats survive the trip, unscrupulous traffickers, for whom the people they convey are just ‘merchandise’ or cargo, are likely, as they do to Ines, to throw them overboard miles from the shore and leave them to drown. Most can’t swim; fortunately, Ines can, and she makes it to land, there to continue her quest.

For unlike the other boat people, she isn’t trying to escape from economic hardship or political turmoil; she is searching for what has been stolen from her and taken to Europe, to Berlin – that city of ghosts, bullet-scarred memorials, squares haunted by the book-burning Nazis, and secret photos of atrocities committed by Berliners in their shameful past.

These early polyvocal fragments take on new significance in the second part of the novel when the perspective shifts and we learn why these narrators are testifying to Ines’ progress towards her goal. Then we realise how partial, unreliable, redacted or just downright untrue they were. Only near the end do we hear Ines’ own voice; like many women (see my recent post on The Silence of the Girls) and migrants, she is for most people both invisible and mute.

Many of those she encounters on her journey and in Berlin show her kindness and sympathy; others exploit her and fail to see beyond the colour of her skin or her gender. When she encounters a group of Italian hunters in the border mountains, for example, it’s notable that it’s the American among them who alone resists giving her money to help her on her way; back home, he says, she’d be seen as ‘an illegal, an alien’. The Italian narrator of this section is clearly horrified at this lack of humanity. This is 2010, pre-Trump.

In Ch. 9 a pastor ‘of the Ibo order’ who works at a refuge for African migrants gives his testimony to the ‘inspector’ who is gathering these witness statements about Ines. He laughs at the officer because

you come here to Berlin to ask a pastor, a black man, about ghosts. Presumably you mean white ghosts…For example, there are ghosts we do not see, the spooky ghosts, the ghosts of the American imagination…These are the ones small children worry are lying beneath their beds at night.

The other kind, the ‘real ones’, he says, ‘are simply the ones whom we choose not to see.’ African migrants like Ines fall into this category of the unseen. At first they have names. Then they don’t: ‘Soon they will turn into ghosts.’ Many are sent back to Libya to a hellish ‘detention centre’ where they ‘turn into ghosts’ and go mad or wander into the desert to die.

As tens of thousands of African migrants blow like sand across the sea, ‘fortress Europe’ nails down the shutters, says the pastor:

It pretends. It pretends like the child afraid of the ghost under the bed.

Lloyd is too astute an artist, however, to turn his compelling love story/quest into a diatribe or message-heavy polemic; this is the only place where the narrative preaches, and it’s because the speaker is a preacher who has good cause to do so. But his message lingers through the rest of the story like fading bells of city churches as one passes through a cemetery on the way to Alexanderplatz.

Lisa Hill at her blog recommended Lloyd’s most recent novel, but suggested I start with this one. She has excellent taste: it’s a terrific novel, and one I feel sure will haunt whoever reads it as it does me. Her post of 2010 examines another theme in the novel: the duality or multiplicity of possibilities or perspectives in interpreting alternative truths and their ‘dual capacities’ – hence the prominence in the narrative of discussions of amphibious lungfish, hermaphrodite snails, people of mixed ethnicity, etc. It’s possible to discern conflicting or opposing ‘truths’ in events or entities that seem irreconcilable, but which can be held simultaneously. It’s a subtle reading that I can’t do justice to in a few words here, for I’ve already gone on too long…I commend her post to you, as I do this remarkable novel. Thanks for the recommendation, Lisa.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A descent from Kyoto into hell

Ryunosuke Akutagawa: Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories

I first encountered the work of Ryunosuke Akutagawa as an undergraduate at Bristol University. I used to go every week to see a subtitled foreign film, put on I think by the film studies department. This was my introduction to world cinema.

The first sequence of films I saw included some classics of Japanese cinema, mostly by the brilliant director Akira Kurosawa.

One of the first of these films – and one that impressed me so much I can still play back key scenes in my mind decades later – was ‘Rashomon’. It was much later that I learned it was based on two stories by Akugatawa. These are the first in the Penguin Classics collection: Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories.

Akutagawa cover ‘Rashomon’, the first of these, is based on a 12th-century tale, and was first published in 1915 when Akutagawa was a 23-year-old student. It’s set in the crumbling gatehouse at the southern entrance to Kyoto and the avenue leading to the imperial palace during the dying days of the Heian period. The tale is set at the decaying end of the era, and the once-magnificent gate is in ruins. Only the scruffy servant, who has a weird encounter among the corpses that are abandoned in the roof chamber, survives in the film, which preserves the rain-soaked setting but not the dark, cynical tale itself.

‘In a Bamboo Grove’, the second story, provides the main influence on Kurosawa’s 1950 film, which is also told from multiple points of view, each of them adding a twist, and warping the reader’s perspective of ‘reality’. None of the conflicting accounts is entirely reliable, and all are cynically self-serving.

The other four in this group of early Akutagawa stories, grouped under the heading ‘A World in Decay’ by the translator, Jay Rubin, are also re-tellings of medieval Japanese folktales. The best is ‘Hell Screen’, about an artist’s Faustian obsession with creating the perfect representation of reality in his work.

The second section, ‘Under the Sword’, begins with two stories set in the early seventeenth century, when the Tokugawa government began to change its policy of tolerance towards the Portuguese Jesuit missionaries who’d begun arriving in Japan in 1549. Like Martin Scorsese’s new film, ‘Silence’, based on the 1966 novel of the same name by Shusaku Endo (which was also filmed in 1971 by Masahiro Shinoda in Japanese), ‘O-Gin’ portrays the regime’s increasingly violent persecution of Christians.

Portrait of the young Akutagawa

Portrait of the young Akutagawa via WikiMedia Commons

Akutagawa’s stories are dominated by the moral and cultural convulsions he and his country were experiencing as a result of the modernising, westernising tendencies of the early twentieth century in Japan.

The final group is called ‘Akutagawa’s Own Story’. These stories were written in the period of increasing mental instability (he feared that he would inherit his late mother’s madness) that culminated in his untimely suicide at the age of thirty-five.

Here Akutagawa changed his literary approach dramatically. It’s a series of fragmentary cathartic semi-autobiographical narratives, scrupulously depicting mundane, even trivial surroundings and a protagonist-narrator whose world and sanity, like his narrative, is fragmenting and distorting like a nightmare Expressionist montage film sequence. The technique and neurotic, introspective content are familiar to any reader of the angst-ridden works by the likes of Knut Hamsun, Dostoevsky, Strindberg (both of whom have works mentioned in the final story) and Kafka.

‘The Life of a Stupid Man’, the penultimate story, contains 51 loosely linked fragments. Section 49, “A Stuffed Swan”, ends with these chillingly reflexive words:

Once he had finished writing “The Life of a Stupid Man”, he happened to see a stuffed swan in a secondhand shop. It stood with its head held high, but its wings were yellowed and moth-eaten. As he thought about his life, he felt both tears and mockery welling up inside him. All that lay before him was madness or suicide. He walked down the darkening street alone, determined now to wait for the destiny that would come to annihilate him.

The final story, ‘Spinning Gears’, which was first published posthumously, shows this disintegrating persona finally descending into hell. It’s deeply disturbing, as the narrator struggles to write while tormented by visions of his dead mother, and terrifying hallucinations of the eponymous spinning gears. The fifth of its six sections begins, with characteristic bleakness:

Now the light of the sun became a source of agony for me. A mole indeed, I lowered the blinds and kept electric lights burning as I forged on with my story.

The narrator flees from a bar, where he’d drunk a whiskey to try to ease his malaise, and feels the desire, ‘like Raskolnikov’, to confess ‘everything [he] had done.’ His nerves are in tatters. The desolate ending leaves the reader feeling much the same.

This is an uneven collection: as Haruki Murakami says in his introduction, the best stories are outstandingly good. The less successful ones are still worth a look.

And if you’ve never seen a Kurosawa film, I’d urge you to seek one out. Then read these stories.

Grant Rintoul wrote a fine post on Akutagawa’s story ‘Hell Screen’ recently as part of his story-a-day-for-Advent project at his 1stReading’s blog: link HERE