Notes from Book Group on January 9, 2013

for The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng

with Roo Dane (host), Linda Holinder, Anne Ipsen, Sandra Lovell, Dorianne Low, Sydney Owens, Dodie Rees, Cornelia Robart

We enjoyed Bûche de Noël from Cornelia’s French recipe, and other contributions including French bread and cheese, various olive and nut snacks, and laughing and conversing together throughout the evening.

Readers were discomfited in either the first part (too much martial arts) or second part (too much gore), but most agreed it was a page-turning enrichment on the years approaching and encompassing WWII in Malaysia on the island of Penang. Philip is attracted to Endo-San, a Japanese visitor, and offers to show him Penang. Following tours of the island, they intensely practice the martial art of Aikido together.  In their martial encounters, “clouds opened up to the sun,” a typical lyrical expression attracting the reader to the prose, which is intensely delicate and intimate in descriptions of the surroundings yet descrete and detached when describing the personal relationships Interwoven discussions of Aikido philophy (a defense practice involving non-aggressive marriage and dissipation of two energy forces rather than an antogonistic action) and the honor code respecting the fathers of the Japanese double agent Endo-San, whose father was imprisoned for political opposition  and also the Anglo-Chinese Philip Hutton, son of a disowned Chinese mother and the scion of a highly regarded rubber plantation business. Philip agrees to work for the Japanese invaders in order to save his family from prison, torture, death. He succeeds in none.

Philip’s relationship with Endo-San evolves  sub rosa. Their friendship deepens into love, though the sexual nature is rarely expressed and then subtly, never overtly. Only love, not sex nor passion, is recorded.

Thus the two are outsiders – by culture and class, by bodily composition, by family, by ambiguous national allegiances, by foreign education, and by their mutual love of Aikido and respect for each other within that practice. Perhaps because of this isolation it is hard to identify with either the ambiguous Philip or Endo-San of the hidden code of honor.

We later understand that Endo-San is a spy dedicated to relay information to the  Japanese in preparation for coming invasion of Malaysia.

We women admitted, much to our disappointment, that we could not properly evaluate the bonds between father and son well enough to understand their importance and effect in this story. It is surely different from our experience of fathers but we need more guidance to understand.

How could Philip have behaved otherwise than to watch the massacre of the loyal servant’s village and the terrible end of his daughter? We understood that we could not know what we might have done in Philip’s situation, caught as he was by a sense of loyalty to his father. But in the end, his father deprives him even of that sacrifice.

Time unforgiving, we did not touch on the many other relationships and events in this story – the British flight then return to the embattled island; the conflict with the radical sister; the refusal to perform ritual killing, samurai-style, of the defeated Japanese general. We continued with a respectful tour of the current political horizon, to everyone’s satisfaction (how often do we have this intimate opportunity?!).

As Roo put it, “this book reads like a knife cutting through butter.”

 

In future, we have decided on a regular schedule of 3rd Tuesday, 7 p.m., at Roo’s house unless otherwise indicated.

For next time, we’ll meet at Roo’s on Tuesday, Feb. 19th at 7 p.m.  to discussThe Great Disruption,  by Paul Gilding, a passionate, opinionated writer presenting a wide range of factual knowledge on the current situation of our earth’s survival.