Full disclosure: I am writing this in one unpremeditated, unedited go, mostly on the adrenaline of deep frustration.
It is baffling to me hFull disclosure: I am writing this in one unpremeditated, unedited go, mostly on the adrenaline of deep frustration.
It is baffling to me how dismissive—almost disdainful—Diamond is of the Chinese writing system throughout, with a level of unqualified criticism uncharacteristic of the rest of the book. “For example,” Diamond writes, “the prestige value of Chinese culture is still so great in Japan and Korea that Japan has no thought of discarding its Chinese-derived writing system despite its drawbacks for representing Japanese speech, while Korea is only now replacing its clumsy Chinese-derived writing with its wonderful indigenous hangul alphabet.” Is this what so-called objective “scientific writing” looks like?
I don’t know who Diamond’s supposed Japanese and Korean friends are (he cites these nebulous figures once, with the affectation of one claiming “My black friends don’t ask me to say African-American”), but as a native Chinese speaker who did not learn the language through Diamond’s expressly preferred, Latin alphabet-based pinyin, as well as a Japanese speaker, I call Massive Bullshit on his unfounded, unprofessional condemnation.
This is compounded with an additional 2003 chapter on Japan and Korea whose “guys, you’re ‘twin brothers,’ why don’t you make peace for the progress of humanity” policy recommendation I found condescending.
I understand that these only make up a small percentage of what is an ambitious, expansive, painstakingly detailed cross-disciplinary work, but it was enough to deeply bother and distract at least one reader. I also find that, in the wake of Yuval Noah Harari’s bestsellers and the rise of scholarly podcasts, Diamond’s fact-dumping narrative voice is startlingly humorless, sometimes to the point of somnambulant. Having been told for almost a decade that this is a seminal work I must read to understand the world, this fell short of expectations—to say the least....more
From title onward, Wyrd Sisters is a joy-filled recrafting of Macbeth and monarchy at large, one that exposes the ridiculousness of hereditary authoriFrom title onward, Wyrd Sisters is a joy-filled recrafting of Macbeth and monarchy at large, one that exposes the ridiculousness of hereditary authoritarianism as a premise. It is, at the same time, a zesty ode to the prowess of theater and of the written word.
The parody of Macbeth is so multidimensional that it is difficult to parse or even to praise. Many of the Shakespearean characters have direct comedic counterparts, but as does the Bard himself, in the form of a rather grumpy dwarf with a rebellious streak. The witches are undeniably magical, but most of their magic seems purely psychological—what they refer to as “headological”. All this is mixed with sexual innuendos that are almost disturbing, though so lightly implied that we wonder if it is our own dirty minds twisting the perfectly innocent words. (It is not.)
The titular witches have a no-bullshit brand of humor that subscribes to a British schoolteacher tradition. It is in turn Mary Poppins-ish, Roald Dahl-ish, and at its darkest Miss Jean Brodie-ish. Some gems of wisdom include:
“She’d never mastered the talent for apologizing, but she appreciated it in other people.”
“‘People have to sort it out for themselves. Well-known fact.’”
“Ninety per cent of true love is acute, ear-burning embarrassment.”
“Only in our dreams are we free. The rest of the time we need wages.”
There is all in all very little to say of such a work, for the same reasons that it is difficult to critique P.G. Wodehouse or Monty Python. A summary: If this is your type of humor, the book will be infinitely bountiful and entertaining for you. If this is not your type of humor, well, then, we are just very different kinds of people....more
I wanted and expected to enjoy When We Were Orphans, it being the few novels concerning Asia by the first Asian Nobel Literature laureate who writes iI wanted and expected to enjoy When We Were Orphans, it being the few novels concerning Asia by the first Asian Nobel Literature laureate who writes in English. Yet whereas Ishiguro is usually either a hit or mild miss for me, this one ended up being miles off the mark. According to the Guardian, Ishiguro once said of this Booker-nominated work: “It’s not my best book.” And as with most things Ishiguro says and writes, this is a gross understatement.
Ishiguro’s signature unreliable narrator is at work here, this time in the form of Christopher, an English boy raised in the Shanghai International Settlement whose parents’ mysterious disappearances made him an effective orphan and drove him to become a professional detective. The narrative shuttles between Christopher’s childhood and orphaned London life, leading up to his eventual return to Shanghai in search of his long-lost parents. While Christopher’s self-alleged competence and fame as an investigator leads us to suspend our disbelief that the disappearance of two white people in China can yet be resolved some fifteen-odd years later by their non-Chinese-speaking son, the suspension grows increasingly unsustainable as the son grows increasingly incompetent and self-absorbed.
As we arrive in China with middle-aged Christopher, we assume that he has some impressive hand of cards that he is waiting to play at the right moment—some detective work concerning international relations and opium politics that he has been preparing for decades. It is, after all, the Sherlockian/Poirotian tradition for the detective to withhold his theory until the end. We assume that, much as Christopher attempts to hide from readers his crush on Sarah, a power-grubbing Englishwoman whose only remarkable trait is her orphanhood, he is likewise withholding revelations about his parents’ disappearances until he can act. We are, however, wrong.
[Below are some mild spoilers made vague.] In the climax of the novel, Christopher demands that the combattants of the Second Sino-Japanese War call a ceasefire so they can all help him find his parents. He looks around at the bullet-riddled buildings, whose only remaining occupants are soldiers and corpses, and is both certain that his parents are still alive within and confused that the fighting Asians aren’t obeying his every word. “Friend!” he cries, gesturing to himself, flabbergasted. He projects Asian faces from his past onto the Asian faces of dying soldiers; he panics because he’s in a hurry to get under Sarah’s skirts; he single-handedly causes a bureaucratic maelstrom for the local warring government; he finds out all his feeble inferences are completely, completely wrong. He has been so far off the trail that he may as well have been doggy-paddling in the Yellow Sea all along. He is either the worst detective in literary history or he’s not a detective at all—just a deeply delusional, dangerously egotistical narrator with a P.I. pipe dream.
At this point, we can only interpret this as an elaborate work of absurdism. We can only assume that Ishiguro is satirizing the egotism of fictional European detectives who carry the White Man’s Burden of Solving All the Non-White Men’s Petty Crimes. Yet Ishiguro makes this interpretation difficult by packing in serious themes of suicide, adultery, and sexual trafficking at the very end—as though making a final mad dash to add some semblance of reality. This, however, contradicts the reading of the whole book as reverse-racism satire, leaving me more confused than ever.
In short, I can only understand this book as a parody, but to the end it doggedly insists on its earnestness. It is, as a result, incomprehensible.