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John Okada–NO-NO Boy

“Was it possible that he, striding freely down the street of an American city, the city of his birth and schooling and the cradle of his hopes and dreams, had waved it all aside beyond recall? Was it possible that he…and all the other American-born, American-educated Japanese who had renounced their American-ness in a frightening moment of madness had done so irretrievably?  Was there no hope of redemption?” – Ichiro Yamada, in Seattle.

51Uh2j9Xp-L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_In this unique, ground-breaking novel, John Okada creates such a vibrant picture of the first- and second-generation Japanese-Americans during and immediately after World War II, that it is impossible to imagine readers of this book not being universally moved by what they read here.  The Foreword alone, written by Ruth Ozecki as a letter to the author in April, 2014, when this edition was published, attests to the fact that Okada, who died in his forties in 1971, never knew how important No-No Boy would become – the only such book ever written by a Japanese-American about the plight of Japanese immigrants who came under immediate and universal suspicion the instant Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.  Over 110,000 people who had come to the US from Japan, some of them many years ago, were rounded up and sent to prison camps in the desert for the duration of World War II, forced to give up their homes, their jobs, their businesses, and their dreams.  Young Japanese-American men, however, were offered a chance to prove how American they had become.  A required questionnaire contained two questions regarding their loyalty: Were they willing to serve in combat duty in the US armed forces, and would they swear “unqualified allegiance”  to the country and defend it from any attack by foreign or domestic forces.


Author John Okada.

As Ruth Ozeki points out in the Foreword, some young men immediately signed “yes” and were drafted into the army.  Many, however, still had family in Japan and were worried about killing a family member there.  Others found the English wording of the questions unclear, and still others were resentful that the US had branded them “enemy aliens” and stripped them of all rights of citizenship, even though some had been born in the US over twenty years ago.  Anyone who answered “no-no,” in answer to the two loyalty questions, was “found guilty of draft evasion, arrested, and taken first to jail and then to a maximum security segregated detention facility for the final years of the war.”  For these “no-no boys,” the aftermath of the war was just as terrible as their imprisonment.  They were universally regarded as traitors to the country and to their families in the US.   Author John Okada himself answered “yes, yes.”  He served in the Army Air Forces as an interpreter, flew reconnaissance missions over Japanese-held territory, and returned to Japan as a member of the US occupying forces at the end of the war.  He was so saddened by the plight of the no-no boys after the war, however, that he uses no-no boy Ichiro Yamada as the main character of this extraordinary – and unique – novel of character, one which I found so moving and so compelling that it is now at the top of my All-Time Favorites List. 

The Wonder Bread factory in Seattle was many blocks from the Yamada's store, but Mrs. Yamada always walked the distance.

The Wonder Bread factory in Seattle was many blocks from the Yamadas’ store, but Mrs. Yamada always walked the distance.

Originally published in English in Japan in 1957, and again in the US in 1976, five years after the author’s death, the book was published for the third time in 2014, and this time, John Okada may finally get the recognition he has not received to date.  His main character, Ichiro Yamada, born in the US, is both a symbol of the no-no boys and a character so vividly drawn that readers, regardless of their own backgrounds, will identify with him and his post-war problems.  Returning to Seattle, his family “home,” after four years, two in camp and two in prison, he is immediately greeted on the street by an old friend who wants to have a drink – until he discovers that Ichiro is a no-no boy, at which point he hurls profanities and spits.  Arriving at “home” to the family’s new address in the old neighborhood, his father speaks Japanese to him and “fondly, delicately, [places] a pudgy hand on Ichiro’s elbow and looks up at his son” – no hugs, no tears, no overt signs of happiness that Ichiro is finally home.  His mother is out getting Wonder Bread from the bakery to sell at the grocery store that they now run.  When she returns and is told that Ichiro is back, she ignores him, her comment being “The bread must be put out.”

Kenji's friend Emi lives in the countryside, where life contains music from a Zenith console.

Kenji’s friend Emi lives in the countryside, where life includes music from a Zenith console and a piano.

Suddenly coming to stunning realizations of the differences between his mother, her culture, and himself, Ichiro now comprehends for the first time that it was his mother’s single-mindedness and her overwhelming example which made him deny the American half of himself by refusing to serve in the army.  His mother insists that the Japanese have won the war and that boats will be coming soon to take them all back to Japan, and she is waiting impatiently for “the day of glory” which she believes is “close at hand.”  Ichiro, now feeling totally alone in the country where he has lived all his life, tries to reconnect with old friends, one of whom spends his time eating, drinking, and trying to be merry, a discovery which increases Ichiro’s despair.  A visit with his favorite college professor feels like “meeting someone you knew in a revolving door, meeting without hearing, smiling without feeling.” Another “friend” publicly identifies Ichiro as a no-no boy and mocks him.  It is not until he meets with Kenji, an amputee from the war who is slowly losing more of his leg to infection, that he reconnects with someone whose attitudes and problems after the war seem to parallel his own.  It is this warm and caring friendship which forms the crux of the novel, thematically. In time, Kenji introduces Ichiro to Emi, a young married woman living in the countryside with a good heart and her own story.

A conversation by an overly friendly waiter at a cafe in Portland sends Ichiro spiraling downward.

A conversation by an overly friendly waiter at a cafe in Portland sends Ichiro spiraling downward.

Eventually, Kenji’s wound becomes worse, and Ichiro drives him to the VA Hospital in Portland, Oregon, for more surgery, leading to several turning points and recognitions.  A stop at a local cafe and conversation with a too-friendly Japanese waiter send Ichiro to rock bottom, though once again, Kenji bolsters his spirits, this time from a hospital bed.  Several more life-changing experiences draw the reader even more firmly into the lives of these characters as the novel continues, and becomes increasingly powerful.  As the author continues to develop his themes of identity and heritage, he emphasizes even more fully how the US policy of isolating Japanese residents in camps and requiring young men to serve in the army damaged many lives.  Author John Okada served his time in this army, but it is with this book that he leaves a lasting legacy which allows every reader to feel and share his feelings and unique insights in a book which I will be recommending to everyone I know for a long, long time.


Seattle in smog.

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on https://www.facebook.com/JohnOkadaBook/

The Wonder Bread factory in Seattle was many blocks from the Yamadas’ store, but Mrs. Yamada always walked the distance.  https://blog.seattlepi.com/  By Grant M. Haller.

Kenji’s friend Emi lives in the countryside, where life involves music from a Zenith console and a piano.   https://www.pinterest.com   Uploaded by Jeff Webster.

A conversation by an overly friendly waiter at a cafe in Portland sends Ichiro spiraling downward.  https://www.coolcousin.com

Downhill in the fog of Seattle:  https://www.seattlepi.com/

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, Classic Novel, Coming-of-age, Historical, Japan, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: John Okada
Published by: Univ. of Washington Press
Date Published: 06/11/2014
ISBN: 978-0295994048
Available in: Ebook Paperback

“Could anything new happen to them, at thirty-five, she wondered?…Does life ever start over?… A serious question, which made her smile.  She would have to ask Louis.  She had the feeling that the answer was no.  You reach a zone of total calm and the paddleboat glides all by itself across a lake like the one stretching out before her.  And the children grow up.  They leave you.” — Odile, in Young Once

modiano young once coverWhen French author Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2014, the announcement came as a surprise to many American publishers since Modiano was almost unknown in the US at that time.  American readers were curious about this new Nobelist whom most had never heard of, and many were anxious to read his work.  US publishers, including many university presses, immediately began translating and reprinting his work – over thirty books – and readers suddenly had a belated chance to read his works in translation.  Writing short novels based on his own unusual family and even more unusual childhood, Modiano quickly found a following among English-speakers, and some of us even became addicts, reading as many of his books as we could find, as soon as possible after they began appearing.  Now, only five years after he won the Nobel, nearly all of Modiano’s thirty or so books are available in English. 

older authjor photoUnlike the work of most other writers, however, these books were not released in the chronological order in which they were written and published in France.  Since all of Modiano’s books are autobiographical, to a degree, non-French readers have been left to put them into the context of his life based on the order in which a reader happens to discover them. The Occupation Trilogy,  for example, consists of his three earliest novels, published in France in 1968 – 1971, when he was in his twenties, but they were not published here until 2015.  One of his most recent books, So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood, published in France in 2014, when Modiano was sixty-nine, was also published in the US in 2015.  With a forty-six year difference in the actual writing of these two books, US readers may find it helpful to check Wikipedia to get the French publication dates and see how these books fit into the chronology of Modiano’s real life.

author photoYoung Once, published originally in 1981, when Modiano was thirty-six, came as a huge and thrilling surprise to me, after I had already read eighteen of Modiano’s other novels.  Here, in what publisher New York Review Books describes as “his breakthrough novel,” Modiano “strips away the difficulties of his earlier work and finds a clear, mysteriously moving voice for his haunting stories of love, nostalgia, and grief.”  The fact that main character Louis Memling, is twenty immediately captured my own attention because that is the one stage of author Modiano’s life which had been a total blank for me in his novels.  Incomplete references to this period in Sleep of Memory, published in France in 2017 and here in 2018, when Modiano was seventy-two, added to a sense of mystery. In that book, Modiano refers to something that happened to the speaker “so far in the past that it’s covered by what the law calls amnesty.”  Other references to “witnesses” and “the statute of limitations” confirm the suggestions that something terrible – and probably illegal – happened to the speaker when he was twenty and still haunt him even at age seventy-two.

One of Odile's auditions takes place in an area beind the Gaumont Palace.

One of Odile’s auditions takes place in an area beind the Gaumont Palace.

Young Once opens with a domestic scene of Odile and Louis Memling watching their two children in the rural mountainside, where they have lived for thirteen years.  It is Odile’s thirty-fifth birthday, with Louis’s birthday a month into the future.  They are also celebrating the fact that they have finally taken over their own chalet, after running a “kids’ camp” there for twelve years.  Flashing back fifteen years to when Louis was twenty, the reader learns about how he met a man named Brossier, age forty, that summer in St. Lo.  Just recently “demobbed” from the army, Louis is looking for a job, and Brossier helps him out.  In a separate flashback, Bellune, a talent scout, meets the quiet, beautiful Odile and offers to help her find a job singing.  Flashing back and forth between Louis and Odile, the author develops their lives while also developing the stories of Brossier and Bellune and their relationships with these naive young people.  Roland de Bejardy, a mysterious older man, originally from Austria, lurks in the background, and Brossier introduces Louis to him at Bejardy’s elegant apartment on the Seine, complete with an iconic Louis XV desk.  When Bejardy offers Louis a job as night watchman in his “garage,” he learns that his main job will be “more of a secretary.” As for Odile, she has met several older men in the entertainment business for whom she has auditioned, and, if necessary, undressed. 

Cite Universitaire, where Odile and Louis obtain student IDs and spend some weekends.

Cite Universitaire, where Odile and Louis obtain student IDs and spend some weekends.

Though the older men spend much time with them, neither Louis nor Odile seems to know what these men actually do for their work. Eventually, they discover that they can get Student ID cards, and with those, they can sleep at the Cité Universitaire on weekends.  Later those Student IDs will get them to England on a student program involving the two older men, and where Louis’s only task is to deliver a mysterious backpack to the head of the summer program.  Though Louis and Odile take a long time figuring out what is going on, the reader quickly catches on to the fact that the two young people are being used, and will also be the ones to take the fall if any problems arise. Just how seriously involved the two older men are with international organized crime becomes clear when murder charges arise.

It was time for a change.

Time for a change.

Filled with excitement, unusual characters, and two young people who feel real, despite their naivete, this relatively self-contained  novel develops mysteries about their lives as twenty-year-olds, some of which are solved by their lives in the sections which show them as 35-year-olds.  All of Modiano’s main themes – identity, memory, connection, and commitment appear here, and readers unfamiliar with Modiano’s whole biography may find some answers here to lingering questions from previous books. As Odile and Louis prepare to leave Paris, they know even then that “when they remembered this period in their life, they would see these intersections and entryways again.  They had registered every last ray of light coming off of them, every reflection.  They themselves had been nothing but bubbles, iridescent with the city’s colors: gray and black.”  It was time for a change.

NOTE:    Readers new to Modiano who are looking for a book which will provide the greatest information about his background and a good introduction to his style may want to begin with SUSPENDED SENTENCES.


 Photos.  The author’s photo as a mature man appears on https://slate.com

The author’s photo as a young man is from https://www.the-tls.co.uk

The Gaumont Palace, an area where Odile met with talent scouts, is shown on https://www.pinterest.com

Cite´Universitaire becomes an area open to Louis and Odile when they obtain student IDs.  https://www.sortiraparis.com

Louis and Odile think about Nice when they decide “It is time for a change.”  https://www.overseasattractions.com

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Autobiography/Memoir, France, Literary, Mystery, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Patrick Modiano
Published by: New York Review Books
Date Published: 03/08/2016
ISBN: 978-1590179550
Available in: Ebook Paperback

If I still say ‘we’ when I talk about that day [of my mother’s burial], it’s out of habit, for the years welded us together like two parts of a sword we could use to defend each other.  Writing out the inscription for her headstone, I understood that death takes place in language first, in that act of wrenching subjects from the present and planting them in the past.  Completed actions.  Things had a beginning and an end, in a time that’s gone forever.” – Adelaida Falcon

cover it would be night in caracasThough there are, at present, over a thousand reviews on this website, this is the first, of all the international fiction I have read and reviewed over the past ten years, that is written by a Venezuelan author about everyday life in a country where turmoil and bloodshed often dominate daily life.  Author Karina Sainz Borgo, born and raised in Caracas, worked as a journalist there  before emigrating to Spain a few years ago.  Her experience in Caracas holds her in good stead here as she gets the novel off to a quick, almost journalistic, start, setting the scene and developing her main character, Adelaida Falcon, an editor in Caracas.   Adelaida’s mother, a teacher who has just died, was the first of her family to graduate from college, and she went on to encourage her daughter to pursue her own writing. Her father, referred to as the Dead One, has never been part of her life.  Sainz Borgo continues by establishing the fraught life Adelaida and her neighbors are forced to endure, with shortages of everything needed for a healthy life, including food and medicine.  “We could only watch as everything we needed vanished: people, places, friends, recollections, food, serenity, peace, sanity. ‘Lose’ became a leveling verb, and the Sons of the Revolution wielded it against us,” Adelaida comments. The student brother of her next door neighbor, has been arrested, along with others, by these same Sons of Revolution, and he has spent more than a month inside a prison, – “beaten, bludgeoned in a corner, or raped with the barrel of a gun.”  Now they do not know if he is alive or dead.

karina sainz borgoDespite additional horrors which are hinted at, Adelaida maintains a remarkably conversational tone throughout her story.  She refuses to waste time whining and develops a kind of intimacy of style which draws in the reader.  As she describes her mother’s burial and the financial difficulties involved, she also worries that someone may dig up her mother’s body in order to take her glasses and the other personal items buried with her.  A group of twenty to thirty thugs is having a bizarre funeral nearby, and as she and the driver escape, she concludes that “I died once more.  I was never able to rise again from all the deaths that accumulated in my life story that afternoon.  That day I became my only family.” Returning home, as she packs up her mother’s possessions, she muses about some old Cartuja plates from Seville, which had been left to her grandmother, and which she and her mother had used in their everyday life, and she thinks about her mother’s older relatives who live along the north coast, about a hundred miles west of Caracas.  Again, she is reminded that she and her mother have lived alone in the city for nearly their whole lives.  Unlike other families, “we came from nobody and belonged to nothing.” 

 Cartuja plate from Seville, Spain

Cartuja plate from Seville, Spain

The real action begins when Adelaida hears what sounds like a robbery upstairs, then sees five men in military intelligence uniforms exiting her building carrying long guns, a microwave oven, and a computer – while also dragging suitcases.  Soon she realizes that she has not seen Aurora Peralta, her neighbor, in weeks.  She has been so busy with her mother’s palliative care and trying to save money and store food for the future that she has not realized how much time has passed since she last saw Aurora.  When she goes out for food, and stands in the bread line – and fails to get it – she returns home to find the locks changed to her own apartment.  Then she discovers that her home is occupied by a group of five women in the civil militia.  When she accosts them, wanting, at least, to reclaim her books, they assert themselves, tearing apart a book, spitting at her, breaking her mother’s Cartuja plates, and pistol-whipping her.  She has now lost her apartment, has nowhere to go, and is hurting.

michelena young mother

“Young Mother” by Arturo Michelena, 1889.

All this detail is part of the author’s clever lead-in to the events upon which the rest of the novel turns.  Though she includes flashbacks which allow the reader to fill in some blanks, Sainz Borgo selectively withholds information, as Adelaida would have done, allowing the past to unfold slowly and add to the suspense. A few new characters appear, as does a love story, and Adelaida is forced to take the kind of action that no human being should ever be forced to take, even in defense of life.  Her only chance at survival is to find a place in her apartment building where she can stay, at least temporarily, without being seen by the militia.  Eventually, she decides she must leave Caracas, but she has no way of knowing how she will do that.  Flashbacks to her life with her mother include another shift of focus and memory in which she and her mother go to the National Gallery.  There they see a painting called “Young Mother” by Arturo Michelena, from 1889, which makes her aware of the “strange tidal pull of beauty that mothers emit, beings of faint perfume, women who hide beneath the morning sun,” a scene indicating she has become totally aware of herself as a female.  In direct contrast, the next scene from the present is one which no one who reads it is likely to forget, and which, because of the degree to which a reader will have identified with Adelaida, will make her situation in Caracas more desperate than anything seen in the novel so far.

The chef who helps Adelaida indirectly specialized in paella.

The chef who helps Adelaida indirectly was an expert in paella.

The last half of the novel concentrates on Adelaida’s plan of escape from Caracas and its difficulty. Other aspects of her life, not even hinted at previously, suddenly give some new insights into her past through flashbacks – and into the horrors of her present.  Her discovery of a cache of papers, some of which belonged to a chef, helps her to get organized, even as other aspects of her life and the lives of those around her become more fraught with danger. Because Adelaida has come to feel so “normal” and sympathetic to the reader, her difficulties take on added impact as she tries to escape, especially when she must behave in unfamiliar ways under new circumstances.  As the final scenes play out, a reader would have to have a heart of stone not to wish her well, despite the sometimes excessive emotionalism and occasional sentimental interludes in which she remembers the past.  Author Karina Sainz Borgo has done what no other writer has managed to do in the past ten years – she has told an exciting and involving story of Venezuela to a whole new audience and helped readers to understand some of what is happening in a country which has been shrouded in secrecy for many years. 

Romulo Betancourt (1908-1981) was considered the "father of Venezuela democracy." He was president from 1945-1948 and from 1959-1964, before the time of this novel.

Romulo Betancourt (1908-1981) was considered the “father of Venezuelan democracy.” He was president from 1945-1948 and from 1959-1964, well before the time of this novel.

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on https://www.harpercollins.com/

The cartuja plate from Seville, Spain, is found on https://www.ebay.com

Arturo Michelena’s “Young Mother” leads Adelaida into a new understanding of women and child-bearing.  https://eclecticlight.co/

Paella, one of the most famous dishes of Spain, would have been prepared often by the chef whose files are discovered by Adelaida. https://spainwineguide.com/

 Romulo Betancourt (1908-1981) was considered the “father of Venezuela democracy.” He was president from 1945-1948 and from 1959-1964, before the time of this novel. 


REVIEW. PHOTOS. Historical, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues, Venezuela
Written by: Karina Sainz Borgo
Published by: HarperVia
Date Published: 10/15/2019
ISBN: 978-0062936868
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

Abbey Road, London: “I stepped on to the pedestrian crossing on Abbey Road, the famous zebra stripes, black and white, at which all vehicles must stop to make way for pedestrians.  The Beatles crossed this same road in single file on 8 August 1969 for the record cover of Abbey Road.  John Lennon leading in a white suit, George Harrison last in line wearing blue denim, Ringo and Paul between them.  A car was coming toward me but it did not stop.  I fell….”

41jibugC7XL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Author Deborah Levy’s unique and hypnotic character study opens with Saul Adler, a twenty-eight-year-old British historian writing a lecture on “the psychology of male tyrants,” in which he describes the way Stalin flirted with women by flicking bread at them across the dinner table.  It is September, 1988, and in three days Saul will travel from London to East Germany, the GDR, to “research the cultural opposition to the rise of fascism in the 1930s at Humboldt University.”  He will leave behind his photographer girlfriend, Jennifer Moreau, who is just beginning to be recognized for her artistic photography and is about to have a show in London.  Saul will live in a divided country which has only recently allowed albums by the Beatles and Bob Dylan to be released there, the lyrics having been studied by officials and finally cleared of accusations of “cultural corruption.” It is Jennifer’s idea to re-shoot the iconic Beatles photograph of Abbey Road by showing Saul himself crossing Abbey Road, so he can give a copy of it as a present to Luna, the Beatles-fan-sister of Walter Muller, who will be his translator in East Germany.  When, during the photo shoot, he is grazed by a car, smashing its outside mirror, he barely avoids catastrophe.

author deborah levyWhen photographer Jennifer appears a few minutes later to take his photo, the main narrative begins, with the author providing key information about Saul and his life.  His father, a communist, has died recently, and as Saul dissolves into tears at the accident scene, he wonders if his father’s death may be partly responsible for his emotional display.  He picks up items which have fallen out of his pocket at the scene of the accident, and wishes he could see his deceased mother again.  He goes with Jennifer to her flat, where they make love and he proposes to her, only to have her declare that “It’s over between us, Saul…but I’ll send you the Abbey Road photos, anyway.  Have a good time in East Berlin.”  Typically, Saul had never doubted her love.  As he walks back to his own place, he reminisces about his callous brother Matthew, a bully also known as Fat Matt, thinks of the future, and plans how he will bury some of his father’s ashes in East Germany. His thoughts of his father are mixed, however, since his father has described him publicly as a “nancy boy,” in part, because he always wears his mother’s pearls, which his father gave him to remember her by.  As he begins to pack for his trip, there’s a fire alarm in his apartment building, and he ends up cuddling with a black poodle in a neighbor’s apartment, where he also muses about his good friend Jack.  He gets so distracted that he forgets to buy canned pineapple which he has promised to take to East Germany for his hosts.

The Beatles' Abbey Road album 1969.

The Beatles’ Abbey Road album 1969.

Part II, a few days later, opens in Berlin.  The seemingly casual and unconnected details, which stir the reader’s imagination as the narrative begins, are more complex and more relevant to the big picture of the novel than they may seem to this point. In fact, the novel’s title about a man who “saw everything” quickly becomes ironic, since Saul Adler, with his “rock star good looks,” sees a lot but understands very little of what he is seeing.  The opening quotation of this review, describing Saul’s accident at Abbey Road, offers a key to the novel, as it actually appears at the halfway point in the book, in a chapter dated 2016, repeating almost exactly the description of the 1988 accident given in the opening chapter.  The repetition and slight expansion of the later details raise obvious questions about the long-term effects of that accident, ultimately leading to questions about whether Saul endures two such accidents – and whether he is an unreliable narrator. He confuses details, describing an anachronistic cell phone in the accident’s description in 1988, and telling someone in 1988 the date when the Berlin Wall will fall.  Characters from one part of Saul’s life reappear in different guises in other places and times, even after their “deaths,”  and he has no way of knowing that his accident on Abbey Road in 1988 will eventually lead him to question virtually every aspect of his life and those connected with it: his family and their often tense relationships with him; his lovers and friends of both sexes; his deepest values and his sense of honor and obligation; losses and deaths as time passes; and, most importantly, his own inability to commit fully to those he thinks he loves.

Jabuar XKE 1961

Jaguar XKE 1961

Part III, takes place in London in 2016, twenty-eight years after he posed for his first Abbey Road photo.  He is now fifty-six and is hospitalized.  He has had the same accident on Abbey Road all over again – or has he?  The name of the driver of the car is the same, though this time the car is a Jaguar XKE.  As he lies in the hospital, he sees and talks with his father, whose ashes he has already buried in translator Walter Muller’s garden in 1988; he sees photographer Jennifer, now fifty-one, with whom he lived in America and tells her he is in love with a man; he sees Rainer, an informant from East Germany, dressed as a physician; and he muses about walking on Marconi Beach in Wellfleet, Massachusetts.  Other events from the past also echo throughout the novel and culminate in 2016, with new information changing the reader’s perceptions of the main characters and their relationships with their friends, family, children, and acquaintances.  Love stories are fluid, not only among the men and women but among same sex friends. Parent-child relationships are shown to be particularly fraught.

In the hospital Saul muses about Marconi Beach in Wellfleet, MA, which he visited with Jennifer years ago

In the hospital Saul muses about Marconi Beach in Wellfleet, MA, which he visited with Jennifer years ago

When Saul, in the hospital, ultimately has to look into the mirror for the first time since his accident in 2016, he hates what he sees – a middle-aged man whose beauty has been “blown to bits.”  As he stares, he asks himself questions – “Are you curious about other people? Or do you walk on the outer edges of life, indifferent, remote, tormented by the affection human beings seem to feel for each other?  Are you loving?  Have you ever been loved?”  As all the people he has known appear or seem to appear during his hospitalization, Saul comes to some long-delayed conclusions about his own life.  Author Deborah Levy succeeds admirably in creating a unique and fascinating novel in which she calls into question the very nature of reality and a person’s understanding of present and past, both in his own life and in the larger world.

"Man Overcomes Space and Time," a copper relief on a building in Mitte, which Saul studied while waiting for Walter in 1990.

“Man Overcomes Space and Time,” a copper relief on a building in Berlin, which Saul studied while waiting for Walter on a visit in 1990.

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on http://www.dalkeybookfestival.org

The Abbey Road album cover is featured on https://www.barnesandnoble.com

The Jaguar XKE 1961, supposedly the car that Wolfgang was driving when he hit Saul, may be found here:  https://www.hemmings.com

Marconi Beach, part of the Cape Cod National Seashore, is shown on https://www.planetware.com/

In 1990, when Saul meets Walter in Berlin to catch up on his life, he spends time looking at “Man Overcomes Space and Time” on the facade of a building in Mitte:  https://www.alamy.com

REVIEW. PHOTOS. England, Experimental, Germany, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Deborah Levy
Published by: Bloomsbury
Date Published: 10/15/2019
ISBN: 978-1632869845
Available in: Ebook Hardcover


“This novella is a work of fiction.  Names and characters are the product of the author’s imagination and any resemblance to actual cockroaches living or dead, is entirely coincidental.”  – Epigraph to this book.

cover_Before one reads even the first sentence of Chapter One, author Ian McEwan uses the introductory epigraph to clearly establish the satirical nature of this work.  Inspired by Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, an existential novel in which the main character, Gregor Samsa, finds himself gradually transformed from a human being into a cockroach, McEwan gives that concept a twist.  Here main character Jim Sams has experienced the reverse, starting out as a cockroach and becoming human.  This change has come suddenly.  After waking up in bed one morning, he sees that he now has fewer legs and, most “revolting,” he now feels a “slab of slippery meat…squat and wet in his mouth…[which] moved of its own accord to explore the vast cavern of his mouth.”  His color has changed, as has his vision, and his “vulnerable” flesh now lies outside his skeleton.  Just last night this new human had made a difficult trip in his previous body from the Palace of Westminster through the underground garage, the gutters, and across Parliament Square.  A political demonstration had been going on, complete with horse guards and police, but somehow he had avoided them, making his way from there to the bedroom of a residence for the rest of the night. Now, however, he remembers he is on an important, solitary mission.  When the phone beside the bed rings, he is barely able to move in his new body, and he misses the call, only to be greeted by a young woman at his door who says, “Prime Minister, it’s almost seven thirty.”  There is a Cabinet meeting scheduled for nine o’clock.

IanMcEwanWhat results is a satire of contemporary British politics which expands beyond those limits into some of the issues currently affecting other western countries, such as France and the US, in their dealings among themselves. The attitudes toward Brexit underlie most of the turmoil in London here, as conservatives are talking about a no-confidence vote in Prime Minister, Jim Sams. Sams, they believe, is not “Reversalist” enough, the “public mood” is “wobbling,” and the “country is tearing itself apart” in the conflict between the Clockwisers, mostly elitists who want to stay in the EU, and the Reversalists, conservatives who want to stick with Brexit and go their own route.  “Reversalism,” the reader learns, is a type of extreme Conservatism, which proponents believe will purify the nation and purge it of “absurdities, waste, and injustice” and result, eventually, in full employment.  Reversing what we have come to expect, all employees pay their companies for the hours they have worked each week.  When they go to the shops at the mall, however, they get paid back by cashiers for every item they buy.  Any money they deposit in the bank attracts high negative interest rates, therefore stimulating each worker to “go out and find, or at least train for, a more expensive job.…The economy is stimulated, there are more skilled workers, everyone gains.”

MP Jeremy Thorpe had, for many years, an illicit and often unconsented relationship with Norman Scott, and had planned his murder.

MP Jeremy Thorpe had, for many years, an illicit and often unconsentual relationship with Norman Scott, and had planned his murder.

Now, however, impatience has led to popular unrest. Complications have arisen involving international trade, banks, and clearing houses, and the Prime Minister has been delaying as long as he can by promising everything to everyone.  His problems with his Foreign secretary grow, a man who has been a thorn in his side for three years, and he considers murdering him, though “A perfect murder was not easily arranged from Downing Street.  One had been planned long ago from the House of Commons by that posturing top-hatted berk, Jeremy Thorpe,” and that was a disaster. Then Sams learns that the French have rammed a UK fishing boat for fishing illegally in French waters, which inspires him to plan how he will greet the coffins ceremonially, but before long, he is distracted and instead begins plans on how they will mark Reversal Day with a commemorative coin, create a national holiday, and create a happy reversal anthem, his favorite contender being “Walking Back to Happiness,” by Helen Shapiro.  He wants to unite and re-energize “our great country, not only making it great again, but making it the greatest place on earth.”  It is not surprising that Sams chooses this meme. Archie Tupper, the US President, has already given reversalism his approval.

Palace of Westminster, home of the UK Parliament

Palace of Westminster, home of the UK Parliament

The UK tension with France continues after a demonstration at the French Embassy, but Prime Minister Jim Sams is learning how to use Twitter and is now tweeting out insults against the French leader as a “loser” and “the least effective French President in living memory.”  He continues in his determination to get the US to reverse their own economy, and a meeting with the US attorney general shows the AG how, under reversalism, all US funds would “flow back up the system, from army, navy, and air force personnel, and all their suppliers and all the manufacturers, directly to the President.” Seven hundred and sixteen billion dollars would belong to the President, legally.  Still, Sams’s government is unable to get things done, and once again, Sams has to reject the idea of murdering someone in his own cabinet.  Relations with the German chancellor have also deteriorated.  Now Sams wants to increase the price of German cars. He decides to have a major conference in the US at a hotel belonging to President Archie Tupper, “which would give the proceedings a certain intimacy,” an intimacy which leads to a conclusion appropriate to the subject.

At one point The Prime Mininister suggests adopting Helen Shapiro's "Walkin' Back to Happiness" as the national anthem for the reversalism.

At one point The Prime Mininister suggests adopting Helen Shapiro’s “Walkin’ Back to Happiness” as the national anthem for reversalism.

Unlike most satires, this one is not a unified or universal picture of the UK or the governments of France and the US.  Instead, author McEwan picks and chooses particular elements of recent history to make exaggerated, satiric comments on contemporary situations in an effort to break up the depressing mood which seems endemic to many western countries these days.  Writing primarily for the British market, he takes care not to seriously offend the large American book market by poking too sharply at our own political issues. He does, however, make references to a US President in several places, to the “astonishing reach of a presidential executive order” and the fact that the President is also the commander-in-chief of the armed forces.  At one point in a phone call he even makes reference to the President’s wife in a nickname which will sound familiar.  Bottom line:  If you, as a reader, are interested in seeing how the Brexit issue in the UK is truly a life-changing issue both for the government and the population, then this book is both enlightening and fun to read.  If you are an American who celebrates our existing US government policy and the presidency as it now operates, then you may want to avoid the peripheral satire here.

ALSO by Ian McEwan, reviewed here:  THE NUTSHELL.  Two earlier books from more than ten years ago are reviewed here:  SATURDAY     and    ATONEMENT

Photos:  The author’s photo appears on https://inews.co.uk/

MP Jeremy Thorpe and Norman Scott had a difficult relationship, which resulted in the attempted murder of Scott.  https://www.bbc.com

The Palace of Westminster is from https://upload.wikimedia.org/

Helen Shapiro’s “Walkin’ Back to Happiness,” suggested by Jim Sams as an anthem for the Reversalists, is on this album:  https://dutchcharts.nl/

Shapiro sings her song here:  https://www.youtube.com/

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Humor, Satire, Absurdity, England, Brexit, Social and Political Issues.
Written by: Ian McEwan
Published by: Anchor Books, Penguin Random House
Date Published: 10/08/2019
ISBN: 978-0593082423
Available in: Ebook Paperback

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