Dead Man Walking: Pico Iyer đọc W.G. Sebald

Note: Một bài viết thần sầu về W.G. Sebald.
Sẽ có bản tiếng Việt
Cái tít làm Gấu bỏ qua bài viết, trong khi đã giới thiệu 1, 2 bài. Thí dụ, bài về Ishiguro: Khi chúng ta mồ côi.
Think of how Ishmael, a proto-Sebald, talks in the opening paragraph of “Moby-Dick” of how he that goes off to sea whenever he feels "a damp drizzly November in my soul" and notices himself passing coffin warehouses. And yet the intensity, even the delirium, of Melville comes from our sense that his craziness is carrying him away, as strong waves might the sturdiest boat. What terrifies in Sebald is, if anything, the opposite: his almost posthumous calm, as of a frozen ship upon a frozen ocean.
"Nature is a Haunted House," he might be saying, with Emily Dickinson, 'Art—a House that tries to be haunted."
Hãy nghĩ về cách Ishmael, một người ủng hộ Sebald, nói trong đoạn mở đầu của “Moby-Dick” về việc anh ấy sẽ ra khơi bất cứ khi nào anh ấy cảm thấy “một tháng 11 mưa phùn ẩm ướt trong tâm hồn” và nhận ra mình đang đi ngang qua các kho chứa quan tài. Tuy nhiên, cường độ, thậm chí là cơn mê sảng của Melville xuất phát từ cảm giác của chúng ta rằng sự điên cuồng của anh ta đang cuốn anh ta đi, giống như những cơn sóng mạnh có thể làm cho con thuyền vững chắc nhất. Điều đáng sợ ở Sebald, nếu có, lại ngược lại: sự bình tĩnh gần như sau khi chết của anh ta, giống như một con tàu đóng băng trên đại dương đóng băng.
“Thiên nhiên là một ngôi nhà ma ám,” anh ấy có thể nói với Emily Dickinson, “Nghệ thuật—một ngôi nhà cố gắng bị ma ám.”
Câu chót là để tặng "Ma Đàm" N.
With Care.





The classic travel writer takes us on a quest, even if he doesn't know exactly what he's after; with the haunted German wanderer W. G. Sebald, the dominant impression is always that of flight. A ffight from the past, and from all that he has suffered there; but also—agonizingly—a flight into the past, since everywhere he goes, whatever he sees, and whomever he meets reflect back to him precisely the world he's trying to put behind him.

There's no escape. With the classic traveler we generally feel that we're being taken by the hand and led out into the world; with Sebald (so uneasy he can't even acknowledge to us that his journeys are a fact, nonfiction), we are always looking back even as we move forward, like cursed figures from an ancient myth.

 You get a sense of this predicament—flight not as liberation, but as compulsion—as soon as you pick up the latest of his books to be translated into English. The dust jacket of “Vertigo”, in the British edition, tells you, not very helpfully, that it to the genre of "Fiction/Travel/History." The table of even in translation, offers two sections, out of four, with titles. The author refuses to give us his first name, in the style that now seems archaic, and his alter-ego narrator will check into a hotel room under a name not his own. Sebald has lived in England for more than thirty years—teaching literature, no less—and yet he chooses to write still in his native German.

 Clearly, you gather, his sense of identity is slippery and his theme, at some level, is all the things he cannot speak about (he was born, the book's cover tells you, in Germany, in 1944.) And as soon as you open the cover and fall into his restless nightmare of a journey, you find you are moving with no hope of orientation or forward motion. There is no sense of home around you his world, no sense of family, or community, no sense, even, of a settled reality. By page 4 you are being introduced to weird drawings of "horses that plunged off the track in a frenzy of fear ” during Napoleon's Italian campaign in 1800; by page 5 moving into a "light that is already fading." The thrust opening section is that nothing is what it seems: most the "perennial traveler" Stendhal remembered about the Napoleonic campaign he accompanied never happened.

 Then the curtain rises on the second section of the the never-changing Sebald narrator, the author's double in a sense, comes out from the wings and takes us into the theme—the world—that are fast coming to seem Sebaldian: “In October 1980 I traveled from England, where I had been living for nearly twenty-five years in a county that was almost under grey skies, to Vienna, hoping; that a change of place help me get over a particularly difficult period in my life.




Though “Vertigo” is the third of Sebald's books to be translated into English, it is the first of them to have been written, and so lays out the foundations for what increasingly seems to be one long, lifetime's work that could be called “À la Fuite de Temps Perdu”. In all these works, a narrator, in all ways indistinguishable from the author, takes off on long, unsettled wanderings, in pursuit of some riddle that will not leave him alone. He mixes up his travels with portraits of other enigmatic wanderers and misfits, and the text is broken up at regular, irregular intervals with cryptic photographs, copies of receipts from trains or restaurants, maps taken from old books. Uncaptioned, and bearing only the most oblique relation to the text around them, the scraps serve only to intensify the sense of placelessness and silence.

 There are few other beings in this desolate, black-and-white world, and those we meet are as disconnected as the narrator: solitary eccentrics lost in their own obsessions, sad outcasts set aside as mad. We see coffins, hear tolling bells, pass down streets that always seem deserted. The long sunless paragraphs, often going on for three pages or more, come to us in an English so antique that it seems a foreign tongue: words like "contagion" and "perdition" recur, we are introduced to "boatmen" and "watchmen." Our first impression may be of Nabokov lost inside a hauntea house.

 Yet part of what possesses one about these passages is that Sebald gives us nothing to hold on to, no background or cause and effect: nothing except the seraphic scraps that seem to belong to the album of a person now departed. His journeys are never undertaken in a spirit of adventure or delight—they often take place in areas or on trains that have unexplained "unpleasant associations" for him—and they never come to any discernible end. Often, unsettlingly, they pass between this world and the next, dreams and a kind of waking. As he wanders around Italy in the second section of Vertigo, the narrator spots Dante, then King Ludwig II of Bavaria; more often, though, he looks at the people around him and sees "a circle of severed heads" or (in Venice, of all places) "a moving cortege." Everything comes to him from very far away, with some dimension missing: people are seen moving in slow motion and there is a soundlessness, a stillness, to everything, as if it were being seen through several panes of glass. The narrator himself hardly knows whether he is in the "land of the living or already in another place."

 Sebald has only to open an old book, in fact, to see, inside the front cover, the name of a person no longer alive. The only attachment he confesses to in the three works is one Clara, but both times she appears, it is in the context of a death. An inn-keeper has merely to touch him, indeed, and the narrator starts, with a sense of something "ghoulish or disembodied." Though it's customary to refer to a writer of such impeccable prose as writing like an angel, in the case of Sebald, sitting alone on a bench at twilight and presenting us with nothing but his back, it might be truer to say that he writes like a wraith.

 And the theme of all his books is, at some level, nothing more than the effects they pass on to us: of restlessness, of panic, of being caught up in a lightless labyrinth (the shadow of Kafka is everywhere in these stories). The titles themselves announce their subjects as vertigo, the fact of being saturnine (The Rings of Saturn), and a compulsion to wander (“The Emigrants”). In some ways Sebald is working, with his hypnotic, spellbound prose, to put us into the very state he inhabits, unmoored, at a loss, in the dark. Lacking all explanations, offering no sense of before and after, his journeys come to us a little as the Ancient Mariner's come to Coleridge's wedding guest.

 The only things that do fit together here, moreover, are coincidences, which impart a sense of being caught up in some script written by Fates we can't imagine to be benign (a believer, in most religions, holds that nothing is an accident—all is mandated by God; Sebald gives us the shadow side of that condition). Thus at one point the narrator leads a madman to the St. Agnes home, and we notice from the date given a little later that it is close to Saint Agnes' Eve. He tells us the story of Casanova, and we recall, a little unsettlingly, that Stendhal, in the first movement of the book, died on the street now known as rue Danielle-Casanova. The archetypal Sebald, moment, you could say, comes when he walks into a pizza parlor in Verona (a pizza parlor!), and sees that the owner's name is Carlo Cadavero (lest this detail seem too Sebaldian to be true, he offers us a photograph of his bill from the restaurant). Later, returning to the place, he finds it all boarded up, blinds drawn on the apartment above, and the photographer next door so silent that we can only assume that the poor Cadavero has attained the state of his narfie. The odd keepsakes pasted into the text—here we see a picture of the shuttered restaurant—have the almost desperate air of pieces of evidence in a trial, aimed to show us (or the narrator himself) that all this really happened and he is not, in fact, mad.

 Just as I was writing this sentence, I should here note, my partner came into the room, looking pale, and told me that, on a routine trip to the office just now, she had come upon a dead body laid out on the station platform. A long white sheet, she said, and a woman's shoes protruding from under it. I went into the next room—this is in Japan—to the desk I share with her teenage daughter, and saw on it a sample English-language sentence: "Last night there was a fire in our neighborhood, and an old woman burned to death." Clearly, the spell was working.


 Sebald is always scrupulous with dates and street names and places—as if, again, to try to convince himself and us that all he is recording is not just the product of a deranged imagination— and if you read Vertigo on the factual level, its first section is an account of the life of Stendhal, and his trials in love and war. He became fascinated, we are told, with a woman of "great melancholy beauty," and, soon thereafter, we are shown a picture of some hands (the woman's?), another photo, of a pair of eyes (Stendhal's?), then a drawing of an ulcer. The writer's one inescapable theme, we read, before his death from syphilis, was "What is it that undoes a writer?"

 The second section of the book follows the Sebald-seeming narrator's journey through Vienna, Venice, and Verona in 1980, in search, he only suggests, of details about the life of Kafka and clues about a series of grisly cult murders. The third movement tells us the story of Dr. K., another man tortured in life and love (and at this point the sharp-eyed reader may notice that some of the images, the cadences, even the details and events of Vertigo come from Kafka's terrifying story of a dead man's tale, "The Hunter Graccus"). And in the closing section of the book, the narrator returns to his hometown in Germany, which he can only bear to call "W." (though the dust jacket matter-of-factly identifies it as Wertach im Allgau).

 Across the four narratives images recur and echo like footsteps in a labyrinth, and with each recurrence their air of portent or meaning (albeit a meaning we can't guess, or perhaps don't want to know) intensifies. We see, again and again, in different contexts, people waving as on a distant ship, as if about to voyage off (as Sebald might put it) to the other shore. We revert frequently to a man (now the narrator, now Dr. K.) lying in a small hotel room, arms crossed behind his head, as the sounds of life come to him from the street outside. We see glimpses of "dust-blown expanses and tidal plains" that are, we are told, the landscape of the future. The force of these recurrences—even a sign above the narrator, when arriving in Milan, says LA PROSSIMA COINCIDENZA- is to make us feel as if we're simply sleepwalking through some diabolical plot that we can't follow. More than once, the narrator notices, in Italy, two men, always walking together, watching him from afar; later we learn that two men, always walking together, have been arrested in connection with the ritual murders.

 It doesn't matter whether these are the same two men; what is important is that the narrator thinks they are: irrational fear and a sense of being hunted are the only home Sebald knows. He is like someone who has fallen through a trapdoor into some parallel world in which correspondences and patterns impress themselves more forcibly than does the real stuff of life. Thus the action proceeds (in his mind) almost like an allegory (and those two men come to seem agents of Charon, waiting to carry the narrator away); certain obvious things have no meaning, and certain covert things have too much. At one point, in an inn, another visitor (German, of course) makes off, by mistake, with the narrator's passport, and we feel that his very identity has been stolen. He buys a map in Milan, to guide him through the city, and on the cover is a labyrinth.

 The reader who declines to succumb to the spell will say that Sebald is seeking out—to some extent creating—a world that will mirror his own brokenheartedness and dread; it is nearly always twilight in his stories, and the season he keeps returning to is autumn (especially November, "the month of the dead," as he characteristically calls it). The year with which he is fascinated in “Vertigo” is 1913, a time when everything, to us now, seems shadowed by what came soon thereafter, making even the tiniest detail (an inscription in a book, dated 1913) seem haunted. To some extent Sebald is almost addicted to the dark, and when he makes for an "unprepossessing, ill-omened hotel" on arrival in Milan, it's no surprise that the "wizen-faced creature" who receives him there resembles all the other dwarves and misshapen beings we've met.

 Sebald would reply that this is precisely his point: to one born with his legacy, all life is a “memento mori”. He is running from a world in his head from which there can be no release but death. And the figures on the far-off ship, so hushed from afar, give the impression they are heading to a place from which they will never return; the outline of a lone man, in a small dark room, begins to seem a metaphor for the narrator's life, alone in a temporary habitation, laid out as in his resting place, the sounds of real life coming to him at a distance. To a dead man, Sebald might be saying, all the world's a funeral.

Such grim and comfortless sensations would doubtless make for very painful reading indeed were it not for the "great melancholy beauty" of the prose, which even in translation (by the poet Michael Hulse, but surely with more than a little help from the English-fluent Sebald) rises to a pitch of antique sonorousness and majesty that makes everything else one comes across seem small. The spirits hovering over it—or behind it—are Robert Burton, author of “The Anatomy of Melancholy”, and Sebald's fellow East Anglian, Sir Thomas Browne, who once wrote that if you watch sleeping bodies from on high, and pass across the globe, following the setting sun, you can imagine the whole world to be a city of the dead (the image is so dear to Sebald that he uses it twice). Though Sebald's flights are seldom flights in the modern aeronautic sense—he usually travels by foot, or on a boat or train—they do offer the prospect of the world as seen from a very great height (as in the light of Eternity, or death).

Their psychological key might be said to be the word "unheim-lich"—or "uncanny"—a Freudian term that has to do with "obsessive paths of action," a "repetition compulsion," and what one scholar calls "a flood of repressed memories that fill the subject with both dread and pleasure." (Two years after writing this sentence, I might add, I found that one of Sebald's untranslated critical works was actually called “Unheimliche Heimat”, or "Un-homelike Home.")

 “The Emigrants” introduced us in the English-speaking world to this new kind of travel writing, and as one proceeds through it—noting, very slowly, that its subject is all the things that are being forcibly left out or suppressed (the empty rooms and blank pages of the last days of the war)—one begins to see that the very title, so hopeful in another context, in this book has much more a sense of the fugitive (a sense that comes over more strongly in the German title of the work, “Die Ausgewanderten”).

Its subject is really the people who are forced out of one world and yet never really arrive in another, and so pass all their days as specters of a kind, not really living and not truly dead.

 Those who concluded from that book that Sebald was writing about the Holocaust had to revise their opinions with the translation of “The Rings of Saturn”, for that work suggests a much larger sense of desolation. As Sebald's narrator wanders around the lonely empty spaces of England—always the last passenger on the bus, the only guest at the inn—all he sees are ruined castles, abandoned factories, cemeteries that are overgrown. And the pressing sense on every side of the end of Empire pushes him towards much larger thoughts of ruin and decline (to Buddhist, he might be reminding us, every meeting ends in departure). The book begins with its narrator in a hospital a state of almost total immobility."

 In “Vertigo”, the sense of exile becomes most apparent when the narrator returns to his hometown. His family home has bee turned into a hotel, he finds, and, checking in, he can only identify himself as a "foreign correspondent" (even as, of course, living in East Anglia, he writes in a language that none of neighbors can follow). Every afternoon he sits alone in “empty bar room," and in the evenings he watches the regulars from the corner, a kind of shell-shocked Rip Van Winkle. Those who find this too metaphorical to be true might here recall the opening movement of the book told us that everything Stendhal remembered of the campaign in Italy was a fiction: what is important is not just what happened, but what our fevered minds imagine to have happened.

 At one point, though—and just in time, perhaps—as he sits on a Tyrolean bus full of old crones complaining about the darkness and the rain, their blighted crops, suddenly the sun comes out and floods the green pastures with a kind of radiance (and, it must be said, angels are one of the presences that recur in “Vertigo”). Even the Italian titles he gives to two sections of book seem, now, to be ways to try ito alchemize his dark memories into something else, in a more sunlit, hopeful tongue; part of his lifelong flight from German. His theme, after all, is not people destroyed by the war, but those only wounded, permanently incapacitated by it, the sound of knelling bells always in the distance.

 Those who hear that Sebald's books are part of a ne ending excavation of memory may wonder about his relation to the poet of the cork-lined room, likewise famous for his shortness of breath. Yet where memory in Proust seems to bring back lost loves and careless afternoons, in Sebald it can only conjure up the dead. The memories that await him in his hometown are all of hearses and sudden deaths; of unexplained departures, or people who live their lives mule and stunned in their own rooms. (The fact, only slipped in, that the narrator's father served in the Reich becomes the least terrifying detail of all.)

A closer parallel is with that other maker of obsessive jour- neys, Melville, afflicted as he was with a sense of being caught in a tangle of the Fates, and yet committed to exploring deeps that were inseparable from the dark. Think of how Ishmael, a proto-Sebald, talks in the opening paragraph of “Moby-Dick” of how he that goes off to sea whenever he feels "a damp drizzly November in my soul" and notices himself passing coffin warehouses. And yet the intensity, even the delirium, of Melville comes from our sense that his craziness is carrying him away, as strong waves might the sturdiest boat. What terrifies in Sebald is, if anything, the opposite: his almost posthumous calm, as of a frozen ship upon a frozen ocean.

"Nature is a Haunted House," he might be saying, with Emily Dickinson, 'Art—a House that tries to be haunted."



 Pico Iyer đọc "Khi chúng ta mồ côi" "When We Were Orphans"

của Kazuo Ishiguro. Đệ tử của Grham Greene, ông viết cuốn "Người đàn ông ở trong đầu tôi", và đó là G. Greene. Cuốn ông mê nhất là Người Mỹ Trầm Lặng, và đây là 1 tác phẩm nhìn rõ nhất cuộc chiến Mít, và cái bóng của nó còn phủ dài dài về phía trước, có thể nói như thế: cuộc xung đột giữa thiện ý- lòng tốt của Mẽo - và cái ác, cái quỉ ma. Cả hai đều gây họa cho thế giới
Foreign Affair
Pico Iyer
October 5, 2000 issue
When We Were Orphans
by Kazuo Ishiguro
Knopf, 336 pp., $25.00
There is a moment, early on in Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel, When We Were Orphans, that cuts to the heart of everything that’s odd—to use a favorite Ishiguro word—about his not-quite-English fiction. His fussy, agonizingly self-conscious narrator, Christopher Banks, never quite sure of his place in the world around him, steps out of a London restaurant to pursue a woman to whom he’s strongly (if passively) attracted. When he catches up with her on the street, she starts to reminisce about the careless bus rides she took as a girl with her mother, now dead, and asks Banks if he rides the buses too.
“I must confess,” he replies, in the overformal English that is an Ishiguro trademark, “I tend to walk or get a cab. I’m rather afraid of London buses. I’m convinced if I get on one, it’ll take me somewhere I don’t want to go, and I’ll spend the rest of the day trying to find my way back.”
I can’t think of any of Ishiguro’s contemporaries in England who would write in quite that tone of voice, let alone have a central character (who’s not supposed to be timorous—Banks, after all, is presented to us, without much evidence, as one of the great detectives of his day) confess to such a fear. Yet the response, with all its overlapping anxieties, of dislocation, of losing time, of being swept up in something outside one’s control, suggests something distinctive about the Ishiguro world, and something that can still make him seem an outsider in the England where he’s lived for forty years.
There is a practical reason why Banks might feel ill at ease in London. Born to an ultra-British family in pre- World War I Shanghai, he’s a relative newcomer in the country of his forebears (and, besides, all his deepest hurts have to do with abandonment). Yet the air of apprehension goes deeper than that. The terror of doing the wrong thing, the elaborate unease attending even the most everyday of activities—take one wrong step and you’ll get lost—the sense of being always on uncertain ground lie at the heart of Ishiguro’s poignant and often anguished vision. In his previous novel, The Unconsoled, he gave us 535 pages about being lost in a foreign place where his narrator couldn’t read the signs.
When We Were Orphans may well be Ishiguro’s most capacious book so far, in part because it stitches together his almost microscopic examination of self-delusion, as it plays out in lost men, with a much larger, often metaphorical look at complacency on a national scale. The story is told in the slightly priggish voice of Banks, and filtered through his highly fallible eyes and memory; a typical Ishiguro protagonist, he keeps assuring us how well-adjusted and popular he is even as the prose reveals him to be “slightly alarmed” and “somewhat irritated,” irked and “somewhat overwrought.” Living on the fringes of London society in the early 1930s, in—as he takes pains to tell us—a “tasteful” Victorian house with “snug armchairs” and an “oak bookcase,” he longs to have some standing in the world. “My intention,” he declares with a typical (and dangerous) mix of innocence and self-satisfaction, “was to combat evil.”
More to the point, like all Ishiguro’s main characters, he is a foreigner wherever he happens to find himself, homeless even among those snug armchairs: in the Shanghai of his boyhood he is taken to be an Englishman, and in England he is taken to be an odd man out from China. Utterly in the dark, he searches and searches the small print of the world around him for clues about how to act. (Ishiguro has spoken touchingly of how he, too, arriving in England from Nagasaki at the age of five, learned to “become” an English boy by sedulously copying the sounds he heard around him.) And yet, of course, the very deliberation Banks brings to every transaction ensures that he will never be a part of it. Much as Stevens, the butler in Ishiguro’s best-known novel, The Remains of the Day, laboriously practiced his “bantering” to fit in with the class he served, so Banks, before attending a party, “rehearsed over and over how I would—modestly, but with a certain dignity—outline my ambitions.”
It is the foreigner’s plight, perhaps, to find himself a detective, as well as an actor, always on the lookout for signs and prompts, and Ishiguro, who is never careless with his details, actually dares to make Banks a would-be Sherlock Holmes (though we have to take much of his professional success on trust, since we hear much less about his job than about his advancement in society). The ironies of a detective who fails to make out even the most fundamental truths of his own life and of the world in which he lives are soon enough exhausted. (As perhaps are those of a character repeatedly complaining about being misunderstood coming from an author who wrote a five-hundred-page novel in part to show that he wasn’t a straight realist.)
Banks’s overwhelming concern, though, even in London, is to try to make sense of what happened to him as a boy, in the International Settlement in Shanghai, and over and over he returns to haunted memories of that time. One day, seemingly out of the blue, his father (working for a British trading company here disguised as “Morganbrook and Byatt”) goes to work and never returns; a little later, his beloved mother, often recalled laughing in a swing, also vanishes, leaving Banks, at the age of ten, alone in a very foreign country, before being shipped off to an aunt’s house in far-off England. His one playmate in Shanghai, constantly remembered, is the six-year-old next door, Akira Yamashita, with whom he seems mostly to share a sense of disconnection. “Christopher. You not enough Englishman,” says the Japanese boy (in his to me implausible English); but Akira, too, returning to Japan, is “mercilessly ostracised for his ‘foreignness.”‘
Anyone who’s read an Ishiguro novel before—and even those who haven’t—will feel at home with the sadnesses of a pathetically self-involved character longing to keep the truth of his loneliness at bay and training a magnifying glass, in this case quite literally, on the alien world that surrounds him: part of Ishiguro’s skill is to bring the senses of “pathetically” together (in characters who are moving without always being likable). Yet this relatively precise and housebound story breaks into something much bigger when, in 1937, the woman Banks admires (from a distance), another orphan, called Sarah Hemmings, suddenly goes off with her new husband to Shanghai. Abruptly, and more than a little belatedly, Banks decides that he must go there, too, to solve the case of his parents’ disappearance, he says (though that happened twenty-five years before), and to bring order, as he somehow believes, to a disintegrating world. When he returns to the lovingly recalled place he thinks of as home, it is, of course, to find it a blacked-out chaos, with Japanese soldiers assaulting the city even as local Communists and the Kuomintang conduct a brutal civil war.
Up to this point, roughly halfway through the book, the reader could be forgiven for thinking he’s reading Remains of the Day Revisited: a straightforward (and expert) portrait of a man possessed by truths he can’t acknowledge, and missing the boat at every turn (the metaphor becomes an actual event here). Yet as soon as it returns to Shanghai, the narrative acquires a political fury that is not shy of using the word “evil.” Ishiguro has long turned a shrewd and attentive eye—a foreigner’s eye, really—on the British specimens he has found himself among, and in The Remains of the Day he famously exposed the blind loyalties and vanities of a butler as a way of pointing up the naiveté of a whole society that invited Nazis to its dinner parties in the Thirties. Here, the assault on perfidious Albion and its “air of refined duplicity” becomes pitiless.
British traders like Banks’s father were, of course, deriving much of their income from smuggling Indian opium into China, which served the second function of keeping the local populace helplessly sedated. Yet as Banks continues his investigations, he finds that the corruption goes well beyond that: British companies like Morganbrook and Byatt (which seems to stand in for a well-known British trading house still powerful in Hong Kong) were dealing with warlords, and, in some cases, sending others off to their deaths in order to protect themselves. And when Banks arrives in a crumbling Shanghai, it is to find the members of the international elite complaining about their chauffeurs and languidly comparing the shells outside to “shooting stars” as they watch, through a ballroom window, Japanese warships turn the city to rubble.
Banks is hardly the most assertive of souls, but even he is moved to “a wave of revulsion” by the studied obliviousness:
During this fortnight I have been here, throughout all my dealings with these citizens, high or low, I have not witnessed—not once—anything that could pass for honest shame. Here, in other words, at the heart of the maelstrom threatening to suck in the whole of the civilised world, is a pathetic conspiracy of denial; a denial of responsibility which has turned in on itself and gone sour, manifesting itself in the sort of pompous defensiveness I have encountered so often.
The point is so alive to him that, fifty-eight pages later, he delivers a version of the same tirade, even repeating (a rarity in Ishiguro’s perfectionist prose) the phrase about the lack of “honest shame.”
And as the novel moves out of Banks’s head, and out into the wider world, it also, paradoxically perhaps, rises out of domestic realism to an often daring surrealism. (At the white-tie gathering in the Shanghai ballroom, Banks is actually handed a pair of opera glasses with which to inspect the war outside. “Most interesting,” he observes, as shells destroy the city. “Are there many casualties, do you suppose?”) Nearly all of Ishiguro’s fiction is set just before or after war, the reverberations of a larger struggle rumbling underneath the action like a distant train; and his great politi-cal theme, nationalism, offers us the shadow side, as it were, of his protagonists’ longing to belong. Indeed, the heart of Ishiguro’s strength is to bring the two forces into intricate collision, and to show how displaced characters like Banks, precisely because they want to be part of a larger whole, and to serve a cause, attach themselves to the very forces that are tearing the world apart.
Here, as Banks stumbles out into a derelict city of corpses, struggling unsuccessfully to trace his parents in the midst of all the fighting, it feels almost as if Ishiguro is daring himself to break out of his habitual control and move onto uncharted ground. The writing begins to feel dreamed as much as plotted, and there is an exhilarating sense of its taking on a life of its own and pulling its author into places where he hadn’t expected to find himself. (In that small moment on the London street, it’s worth noting, Banks finally does get on the bus.)
In the most remarkable scenes in the book, lit up by a sense of outrage and social concern unlike anything Ishiguro has given us before (though he began his professional life working with the homeless), Banks follows a policeman into a broom cupboard and emerges through it into history. All around him is a wasteland that looks like “some vast, ruined mansion with,” in his characteristic phrase, “endless rooms,” and the all but unimaginable suffering and poverty of the “warrens” that the British have taken pains not to see. The very inadequacy of the society detective in the face of real life becomes as harrowing as it is painful. “‘Look here…All of this’—I gestured at the carnage…—’it’s awfully bad luck.”‘
Abandoning solid ground like this, for writer and character alike, clearly comes with risks. Ishiguro’s speech sometimes has to me the feeling of having been as much worked up from research as everything else here (“Look, old chap…I’m going along tonight to a bash,” says one character), and as Banks moves through the ruins of the city, more than ever subject to the foreigner’s inability to tell friend from foe, or to see the larger picture, some of the dialogue sounds as if it had been mugged up from some old British movie about keeping a stiff upper lip. “Now, look here,” Banks tells a dying Japanese soldier (after attending to his wounds with his trusty magnifying glass), “I don’t want any of that nonsense. You’re going to be fit as a fiddle in no time.” The soldier, whom Banks takes to be his old friend Akira, grunts, and, recalling his distant son, says, “You tell him. I die for country. Tell him, be good to mother. Protect. And build good world.” Sometimes, in this book, it is only the Japanese who don’t sound Japanese.
Yet for all the occasional awkwardness, the mixing of effects—the poignancy and absurdity of country-house manners brought to people fighting with meat cleavers and spades—turns Ishiguro’s gift for strangeness to powerful advantage. “Most annoyingly,” Banks says, while recalling stumbling through the debris with the dying soldier, “my right shoe had split apart, and my foot was badly gashed, causing a searing pain to rise with each step.” That mix of “annoyingly” and “searing” catches Banks to perfection: it is his very inability to find the right words for the situation that makes him touching.
The denouement of Banks’s private drama is effected rather too tidily—Ishiguro always has to fight the temptation to be too considerate to his readers—and the creaking of the stage machinery intensifies when a character we’ve seen described as an “admirable beacon of rectitude” suddenly tears off his mask to reveal a “haunted old man, consumed with self-hatred.” Ishiguro’s writing derives its dreamlike power from dealing with events that are unresolved, mysterious, and in the shadows; when the bewilderment is cleared up, the spell begins to fade.
Although The Remains of the Day won the Booker Prize and became a huge commercial success worldwide, Ishiguro himself, with his magnifying-glass alertness, referred to it sometimes as a “wind-up toy”; and as if in response to a book that could be read in only one way, he followed it up with an allegory of estrangement, The Unconsoled, that was indecipherable even upon rereading. In When We Were Orphans, the reader can sense his having broken through his self-consciousness to activate a passion that has previously been submerged; and even as Banks’s attempts to keep up appearances, like his willful blindness, nicely reflect those of the society around him, the book records unsparingly how the larger world’s machinations put all his innocence to shame.
The venturing onto foreign ground never fully sidesteps melodrama (“What you just saw in Chapei,” a Japanese colonel says, with unlikely fluency, “it is but a small speck of dust compared to what the world must soon witness!”). And Ishiguro’s tendency to be overpunctilious is not entirely transcended: in the middle of the book, Banks suddenly adopts a ten-year-old Canadian girl, who is so peripheral to what follows that she seems only a narrative device—another orphan, another foreigner, a symbol of the responsibilities Banks neglects and a way of tying pieces of the plot together. Yet this very unevenness can sometimes seem an act of courage, in an author so precise, and mark a kind of advance, after the occasionally overworked perfection of books like The Remains of the Day.
More importantly, Ishiguro uses the precedent of the International Settlement as a way of highlighting, and questioning, the very mingling of races that is an ever more pressing issue in the global diaspora. Salman Rushdie, in his celebrations of the new deracination, looks back to Moorish Spain to show how different cultures can live together in relative harmony; Michael Ondaatje, in The English Patient, imagines a desert in which characters spin around one another like separate planets, no national divisions visible in the sand. Ishiguro, however, is on this theme, as on most others, notably less sanguine than his contemporaries (his father, it’s interesting to note, grew up in the International Settlement). National identity is the language and the currency we use, he suggests, and even Akira and Banks, at the age of six, refer all their triumphs at games to being Japanese or being English (even as they compete to say “old chap” in what they take to be the right way).
In one of the most reverberant moments in the book—as well as the strangest and most typical—the child Banks asks a friend of his parents, “Uncle Philip, I was just wondering. How do you suppose one might become more English?” The older man, sounding like many people we know today, replies that “mongrels” like Banks, growing up in the midst of many cultures, may be lucky enough to exist outside traditional affiliations, and even may bring an end to war. Then, stopping, he corrects himself. “People need to feel they belong. To a nation, to a race. Otherwise, who knows what might happen? This civilisation of ours, perhaps it’ll just collapse. And everything scatter, as you put it.”
When We Were Orphans traces the collapse of a civilization and the scattering of just about everything, and shows how the very wish to belong is complicit in that unraveling (as it describes how the only home Banks knows turns into a maze of refugees). And in its sadness, as in its willingness to stretch and experiment with realism, it reminds us that Ishiguro is at heart as much a European as an English writer.
In many respects, in fact, the novelist he most resembles is that other disciple of Kafka’s, living in England for thirty years without ever becoming English, W.G. Sebald. Except for The Unconsoled (the perfect title for all of Sebald’s work), Ishiguro’s writing has always been concerned with how war affects those not directly involved in it—the theme that Sebald has made his obsession—and how we try to get around all the things that we do not want to say (or know). It is a curious coincidence, perhaps, that both of them have been conducting their inquiries into the end of Empire in an England where anti-Japanese and anti-German sentiment still run high almost sixty years after the last war.
When Banks finally enters his family’s house in Shanghai, he finds it made over by its new Chinese owners. When Sebald, in Vertigo,
returns to his hometown in Germany, he can revisit his family’s old living room only by checking into a local inn. For both these writers, it seems, foreignness in the modern floating world begins at home.

Pico Iyer đọc "Tàn Ngày" của nhà văn Nhât, Nobel văn chương, Kazuo Kishiguro.
Waiting upon History
"The Remains of the Day"
It seems only appropriate, perhaps, that of all the books tumbling off the foreign presses purporting to explain Japan to the West, the most revealing one so far is not, in fact, set in Japan, has nothing to do with Japan, and, as it happens, is a novel about six unexceptional days in the cloistered life of an English butler in 1956. Yet the author, Kazuo Ishiguro, is one of those lucky individuals with one foot on either side of the widening gap between Japan and the world at large: born to a samurai family in Nagasaki but resident in England since the age of five, he is as Japanese as his name and as English as the flawless prose he writes. Janus-mined, he is perfectly positioned to see how one island of shopkeepers, bound by a rigid sense of class and an unbending sense of nationalism, can shed light on another; how one monarchy, bent on keeping up appearances, in part by polishing nuances, is not so different from another; and, in fact, how the staff of an English country house, with its stiff-backed sense of "self-training," its precisely stratified hierarchy, its uniforms and rites and stress on self-negation, might almost belong to Sony or Toshiba. No man may be a hero to his valet, but every valet is a samurai hero to his man.
“The Remains of the Day” is, as its title suggests, written in that favorite Japanese form, the elegy for vanished rites: it is a vespers novel, set in an England made more lovely and more lulling by the late afternoon light in which it is seen, dark shadows lengthening across the empty rolling lawns. And to all appearances, the novel, which recently won the Booker Prize, is nothing more than a depiction of a certain kind of man, reflected in the elaborately formal diary of a butler as he takes himself on motoring holiday through the English countryside, doing nothing more dramatic than looking in on a former colleague, peering, in some perplexity, at the ways of the ordinary world and wondering what "dignity" in a butler truly means. “The Remains of the Day” may seem just small, private English novel done to—Japanese—perfection: a “vale” from a valet. To anyone familiar with japan, however, the author's real intention slips out as surely as a business card from a Savile Row suit.
For Ishiguro's butler is so English that he could be Japanese, in his finely calibrated sense of rank, his attention to minutiae, his perfectionism, and his eagerness to please; his pride is his subservience, and his home is only in the past. Stevens has no self outside his job, and no thought for anything except his job; he even—like a good company man—gives "military-style pep talks" to his staff and surrenders now and then to "wishful thinking of a professional kind." His is the gentleness of innocence as well as self-delusion.
In smaller ways, too, he reminds one of a “salariman”: solemnly practicing witticisms in the hope of putting his new employer at ease, and deriving his great—his only—emotional excitement from agonizingly impersonal daily chats over cocoa in the pantry with the housekeeper. Sometimes, when he addresses his dying parent as "Father" (and never "you") or when the woman who is closest to him delivers sentences like "Is that so, Mr. Stevens?" his narrative might almost be translated from the Japanese; and sometimes, when he reveals, in all naïveté, the discriminating assumptions on which his life is based—"But life being what it is, how can ordinary people truly be expected to have strong opinions on all manner of things?"—one can almost hear the unconscious snobbery of Sei Shonagon, or a hundred other ancient Kyoto courtiers.
Yet part of the skill of Ishiguro's plot is that by placing us inside the butler's voice, and mind, he makes his most distant qualities accessible to us, and almost touching. He lights up the Japanese mind from within, and then shows how it is all about us: the rococo periphrases, euphemisms, and litotes, the life so provincial it could be almost prelapsarian, the unfailing self-surrender that seems so alien, so Japanese to us—all are alive, and not so long ago, in the quiet hills of Oxfordshire. When Stevens reminds a colleague, "Our professional duty is not to our own foibles and sentiments, but to the wishes of our employer," it sounds perfectly natural, even normal, in the context of their lives; and when he reminds himself, "There was little to be gained in growing despondent," his stoicism makes all the practical sense in the world. Seen from afar, he might seem cold or prudish; seen from within, he is a profoundly decent man trying to do his best. In perhaps the novel's central scene, the bespoke butler dutifully goes about his job, tending to the feet of a distinguished guest, while his own father dies of a stroke upstairs. In most lights, this kind of self-denial would strike us as unnatural to the point of heartlessness. But in the context of Stevens's high-minded code of service, it becomes the crowning achievement of his career—grace under the intensest pressure—and one can almost see how he can recollect the night of his father's death "with a large sense of triumph." Here is the heroism of Benkei at the Bridge, here the self-transcendence of Shinji Hasegawa at the Seoul Olympics, robbed of a gold medal after four years of practice, yet refusing to indulge himself in protest.
Stevens's life, as he sees it, has no meaning save in self-subordination. He is only as great as the man he serves, and he can best serve king and country, he believes, by waiting, quite literally, upon history, keeping the silver polished on behalf of the ministers and ambassadors who visit his house to change the world. "A 'great' butler can be only, surely, one who - can point to his years of service and say that he has applied his talents to serving a great gentleman—and through the latter, to serving humanity," he opines (not so different from "I work for Mitsubishi, therefore I am"). And as befits a classic retainer, Stevens does indeed shine in the reflected glory of his lord: on those infrequent occasions when he ventures outside the manor gates, he is taken by nearly everyone he meets, with his perfect manners, his well-cut suit, and his posh address, as a gentleman himself.
Yet it is one of the sad ironies of his sheltered life that he never fails to be disarmed, even intimidated, by the very people who look up to him; Stevens is never more moving—or more Japanese—than when he earnestly meditates on the virtues of "bantering" and realizes, to his sorrow, that he will never be able to speak the language of the world.
For while Ishiguro can create an utterly convincing Japanese from the inside out, he is also far enough away from Japan to be able to count the cost in fashioning so limited a self; and to see that meticulously sticking to decorum is a way of staying at a safe distance from warmth or wit or risk. Not for Stevens the bold inspirations of Jeeves—he is a man who lives entirely by the book, permitting himself neither opinions, nor curiosity, nor even, really, self. And in the end, it is his very virtues—his loyalty and diplomacy, his self-restraint—that leave him high and dry. His unquestioning fidelity to his master's voice leads him to defend a man who fraternizes with Nazis and dismisses two housemaids on the grounds of their being Jewish. And his insistence on self-control at any cost, and in any context, prevents him from admitting, even to himself, any softer feelings to sustain him—such as love, perhaps, or hope. For all his command of subtleties, Stevens is, in some ways, emotionally deaf, trying with reason to fathom the logic of the heart. "Why, why, why do you always have to pretend?" the woman who loves him finally cries out; to that, he can answer only that it is his duty, his self. The dying light that casts a valedictory glow on all the fading houses of his world finally includes the protagonist himself.
The great skill of Ishiguro's book—the grace of his position, perhaps—is that he lets us sympathize with both the lover's impatient cry and the butler's perfectly dignified response. In that sense, he shows us how unreasonable it is for us to expect those trained—or even hired— to be self-annulling to act otherwise; and how unreasonable for them to expect us to renounce impulse or emotion. In the process, he begins to explain how the Japanese can be highly sophisticated, yet innocent as toddlers; refined, yet seemingly by reflex; extraordinarily considerate and, in spite—indeed because—of that, apparently unfeeling. Translating the most Japanese of virtues into terms we recognize as our own, he brings their most foreign features home to us. Without a doubt, the thirty-five-year-old author owes a great deal to his background. The atmosphere of all his books is set by the title of the first, “A Pale View of Hills”, and all three of his novels have that same ink- wash elusiveness, an ellipticism almost violent in its reticence; all three, moreover, are exquisitely fashioned miniatures, miracles of workmanship and tact that suggest everything through absence and retreat. His books are all as delicate as antique vases, and sometimes just as cold. Occasionally, in fact, his craft can seem almost too well designed, too careful in its calculations: it seems almost too symbolic that Stevens's English country house be taken over by a crude, straight-ahead American, and too allusive that a couple mentioned in passing, just before an Indian anecdote, be called “Mr. and Mrs. Muggeridge" (as if to summon up Malcolm Muggeridge, who famously—and appropriately—claimed that Indians were the last great Englishmen). Yet all this can be forgiven so long as Ishiguro shuttles with such discretion between his motherland and his mother tongue, making close to us the quiet heroism that is the other, unacknowledged side of Japanese “inflexibility." There is a nobility to Stevens's uprightness, and a pathos too, only compounded, perhaps, by his awareness that all the world will interpret it as folly. In the end, “The Remains of the Day” is a perfectly English novel that could have been written only by a Japanese.
Pico Iyer: "Tropical Classical"
Note: Cuốn này, "Tàn Ngày", với riêng Gấu, số 1 của tác giả. Đã được dịch ở trong nước, và có vẻ như độc giả bị dội, chẳng nhập vô được.
Bèn post bài này, của Pico Iyer, 1 tác giả Gấu cũng thích đọc, đệ tử của Greene, và rất mê cuốn "Người Mỹ Trầm Lặng."
Tay này, đọc thì nhớ tới Đỗ Kh. nhưng viết cao hơn 1 bực, theo Gấu, theo nghĩa này: Ông Mít dư sức viết bảnh hơn, nhưng thích viết thấp hơn.
Xứ Mít là vậy.
Dư sức đợp Nobel, nhưng chỉ thích là 1 "best-seller."
Ý này Gấu chôm của 1 tay viết về 1 nhà văn Mẽo, tác giả cuốn "Người lữ hành kỳ dị" - tự dưng quên tên ông - Cực kỳ nổi tiếng, thừa sức đoạt Nobel, nhưng bán rẻ tài/đời của mình, làm nhà văn ăn khách.
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