This short but powerful debut novel pricks our collective conscience as Americans with the sparingly-told story of one’s family’s Kafkaesque experience in the Japanese-American internment camps during WWII. Imagine, dear reader, that from one day to the next, you are suddenly viewed as the enemy of the nation you have called your own for decades—spat upon, hissed at, refused service, fired from your job, bricks thrown through bedroom windows, all without a formal accusation or the right to defend yourself. And then you are whisked away to an alternate existence of emptiness. This is the story of thousands of Japanese-Americans in 1942 whose lives were ripped apart and for whom nothing would ever be the same.
A comfortable middle-class Japanese family that has been living in Berkeley, California for more than 20 years, suddenly loses its father in the middle of the night to close-mouthed FBI agents for “questioning.” For months, he is shuttled from one facility to another, and his letters to his wife and children look like Swiss cheese, sentences either sliced out with razors or blacked out with ink by censors. And then, one day, the city is papered with notices for all Japanese-Americans to prepare themselves for removal to internment camps for the duration of the war. Mother and children—a boy and a girl—are taken by train, and then bus, into the middle of the Utah desert, in possession of only what they can carry. They are alternately suffocated from brutal heat and ever-blowing dust or frozen in winters for which there is insufficient protection, and lose track of the days as they lose track of their homes, their former lives, and ultimately their identities. They are fed, they are not physically or verbally abused, but they are suspended in time and surrounded with mind-numbing and interminable nothingness.
Otsuka manages to convey throughout her novel the beauty of precious Japanese cultural traditions, even while portraying a certain brittleness in the lives of her protagonists. The family eventually gets back home, but lives under a pall, a special kind of post-traumatic stress that author Otsuka captures in painfully sparse sentences, each of which jabs like a knife into the heart of our oh-so-democratic society.
Waugh, known for his humorous novels, published the soap-opera-like Brideshead Revisited in 1945. Some may be familiar with it from the 1981 TV series starring Jeremy Irons as Charles and Anthony Andrews as Sebastian. Brideshead Revisited is the story of the wealthy, propertied, Catholic Marchmain family and their manor at Brideshead on the eve of World War II. The story is told by Charles in a flashback. It begins during the war, with Charles (in his late 30s) serving in the military and being stationed at Brideshead, thus causing him to think back on the very strange but fascinating family that he knew there many years before.
The themes running through the book involve the loss of youth and innocence, the decay of the wealthy propertied class between the wars, and the search for faith and meaning in life. The Marchmains are Catholic because Lady Marchmain had refused to marry Lord Marchmain unless he converted. They had four children together, and then while fighting in World War I, Lord Marchmain left them for his lover on the continent. Lady Marchmain remains a staunch Catholic, but two of her four children — Sebastian and Julia — struggle with their faith and the aftermath of their parents’ divorce.
Charles meets Sebastian at Oxford and finds the family’s religion a curiosity but does not understand its hold on the Marchmains. On the whole, Charles opposes organized religion since “…at its best it was slightly ornamental, at the worst it was the province of ‘complexes’ and ‘inhibitions’ … and of intolerance, hypocrisy, and sheer stupidity.” Sebastian, who struggles with alcoholism especially when amongst his family, seems to be searching for faith and purpose in life, and his inability to find it exacerbates his drinking problem. In a conversation with Charles on Catholicism, in which Charles calls it all nonsense, Sebastian says, “Is it nonsense? I wish it were. It sometimes sounds terribly sensible to me.” He goes on to describe Catholics thus: “…they’ve got an entirely different outlook on life; everything they think important is different from other people.” The description of the life that Sebastian comes to lead sounds rather sad and pathetic, but it actually seems to be the fulfillment of his desires and affords him some happiness.
Charles, while distancing himself from organized religion, seems to fetishize buildings and architecture. He wishes to be an artist but does a poor job with people and excels at architectural painting. “I have always loved building, holding it to be not only the highest achievement of man but one in which, at the moment of consummation, things were most clearly taken out of his hands and perfected, without his intention, by other means, and I regarded men as something much less than the buildings they made and inhabited.” It is the structure, and not those who live in it, that leads a “long fruitful life.” During the Depression, Charles becomes a successful artist by painting portraits of houses and manors that will soon be “deserted or debased” because the families can no longer afford to keep them. They commission portraits of their homes to remember how they once were. But Charles grows tired of this, and finding that he needs some sort of inspiration, sets off for Central and South America. It’s a strange sort of missionary trip for Charles, where he can “…go to the wild lands where man had deserted his post and the jungle was creeping back to its old strongholds.” He paints churches, palaces and cloisters in disrepair and makes another fortune. On his return voyage from this trip, he reconnects with his wife, whom he left for two years to do his painting, and with Julia Marchmain Mottram, leading to Charles’ return to Brideshead and the final chapters on the fate of the Marchmains and Brideshead.
I found myself engaged throughout the story but somewhat disappointed when it was all over. It was okay, but not great. The characters who interested me most — Sebastian and Lord Marchmain — had relatively small parts in the novel. Waugh devotes more attention at the end to Julia, whom I did not especially like, and I couldn’t understand why Charles became so interested in her all of a sudden. I can see how this would make for better television than reading.