Friday, September 25, 2015

The Great Wave—and its effect

In Tsunami Reflections: Otsuchi Remembered, Charles Pomeroy has written a fascinating book about the tsunami that hit the northeastern coast of Japan's main island, Honshu, on March 11, 2011. He is an unusually well-qualified foreigner to write the book; he has a degree from Tokyo's Sophia University; is a former reporter/writer, and after 50 years in the county clearly has deep, broad knowledge of Japan.

The book focuses on the small coastal town of Otsuchi where Pomeroy's wife Atsuko grew up; the tsunami erased their retirement home in the town's center; their sister and her husband died
in the disaster. It was not the first tsunami to hit the Tohoku coast; it had been inundated in 869, 1611,1793, 1856, 1893, and 1933. The last two killed around 22,000 and 3,000 people respectively. So when you live on that coast, you live aware that the Pacific is not always pacific.

Because Pomeroy and his wife had family and because they lived in Otsuchi, he is able to describe the town, the life, and his neighbors in convincing detail. "Known for the traditional architecture and folklore . . . the town likes to think of itself as the home of the mythical kappa ("river-child"). . . Kappa tales served to alert children to the perils of deep water, it is said, thus making riverside excursions safer for them." This is what ordinary, daily life was like before the tsunami struck.

As it happened, Pomeroy and his wife were in their Tokyo apartment when the May 11th earthquake struck, one of the five strongest tremblors in recorded history. While buildings shook in Tokyo, the ocean reared back off the coast, gathered strength, and came roaring back as wall of water that smashed virtually everything it met. And when the water receded, fires erupted from a kerosene supplier, from propane gas tanks, from overturned kerosene stoves, and fuel leaking from vehicles. This all "contributed to the incarceration of what remained of the town after the tsunami."

Tsunami Reflections reports Pomeroy's reaction to the news, attempts to reach the town, the cleanup effort, participation in a mass funeral (the authorities had to identify his sister-in-law by her DNA), the humanitarian efforts by volunteers and strangers, and what the local and federal government is doing to help the town recover. The giant funeral tent could hold only 2,000 mourners; "revised casualty figures showed 770 dead and 820 missing." Over 3,000 homes had been destroyed and because the government is raising the ground level eight feet and because it takes time for the landfill to settle, construction in the center of town cannot even begin until 2018. He touches on the Fukushima atomic plant's meltdown only in passing (it would be a whole other book).

Pomeroy has made Tsunami Reflections exceptionally reader-friendly by including maps, dozens of color photographs, and—a modern and helpful element—internet links to videos and photographs from the disaster. While I have no criticism of the text, I would have run fewer pictures and printed them larger. I found two places where earlier text was repeated word for word, and picture captions need not repeat what is in the text. But these are quibbles. It is impossible, I believe, for words or pictures or videos to adequately convey the reality. As Pomeroy says, " . . .no words could fully describe the desolation and . . . photos could only suggest the vast sense of loss. I was struck by the pervading silence. A neighborhood that had once echoed with the sounds of daily life—the excited voices of passing school children and the quiet chatting of neighbors, the clang of the warning bell at the nearby railroad crossing, the buzz of a jigsaw at the next door woodworking shop, the postman's motorbike, the chirping birds. No more. All was strangely silent except for the distant rumble of earth-moving equipment." I'm in awe that, given his losses, Pomeroy was able to write this powerful book at all.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

An interesting perspective on three American classics

Azar Nafisi, born and raised in Iran, wrote the best-selling Reading Lolita in Tehran. Her new book is The Republic of Imagination: A Life in Books. It deserves to be as widely read as Reading Lolita.

Nafisi, born in 1955, has a doctorate in English literature from the University of Oklahoma (Norman), and taught English literature for 18 years in Iran. She and her family left Iran after the revolution, and she is now a fellow at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. She became an American citizen in 2008.

Because she is (was?) an outsider, she brings a interesting perspective to American literature and culture. She makes connections/associations that someone born in the culture is liable to miss, but that are obvious once someone like Nafisi points them out. For example, "I have often wondered whether there is a correlation between the growing lack of respect for ideas and the imagination and the growing gap between rich and poor in America, reflected not just in the gulf between the salaries of CEOs and their employees but also in the high cost of education, the incredible divide between private and public schools that makes all fine speeches by our policy makers—most of whom send their children to private schools anyway, just as they enjoy the benefits and perks of their jobs as servants of the people—all the more insidious and insincere."

In The Republic of Imagination, Nafisi discusses three novels The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Babbitt, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, and the works of James Baldwin. Throughout, she connects the books to her own life—the best friend who, pregnant, had to escape from Iran by horseback, the art history student who argued for a Southern consciousness, and more. Her comments and insights are thoughtful and thought-provoking. She argues, for example, that Tom Sawyer is the real villain in Huckleberry Finn. She also points out that "In fiction, every treachery and setback appears to serve some end: the characters learn and grow and come into their own. In life, it is not always clear that the hijacking of our plans is quite so provident or benign." She wonders about the effort to sanitize, to make our books (our patrimony) inoffensive . . . and discusses Twain's use of the n-word (which is so toxic I'm not going to risk spelling it out).

In her discussion of Babbitt, she points out that Sinclair Lewis's genius "was in capturing the spirit of modern advertising when it had not yet come to dominate the American landscape and define the soul of the nation." George Babbitt is a prime example of consumerus americanus, one who is "both attracted to the joys of freedom and frightened by its perils, for freedom does have many perils," and the best way to confront these threats "is not to avoid being free but to cultivate independence of thought . . . "

And while it is tempting to continue picking nuggets from this fascinating book, I am going to stop with one more: "Time and again, I have wondered if our current assault on literature, which so many like to think of as useless and irrelevant, is not a reflection of the desire to remove from the equation anything that it painful or distasteful to us, anything that does not fit our norms or make life easy and fall within our sphere of power and control. In one sense, to deny literature is to deny pain and the dilemma that is called life."

If you have never read Huckleberry Finn, Babbitt, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, or James Baldwin, The Republic of Imagination is a useful introduction to the authors and the works. If you have read them, Nafisi's insights and observations are likely to send you back to read them once again—as they did me.