“This is a story of how I fell in love with a woman who read me a specific story from Herodotus. I heard the words she spoke across the fire, never looking up, even when she teased her husband.” -Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient
Last night, I was thinking about the historical novel and how its claim to being “historical” is a bit of a sham. A love story, tragically thwarted. This is what most historical novels boil down to. Or at least the ones I adore.
I was thinking about this as I was rereading The English Patient, which is no doubt at the top of my list, along with a few others like Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! History looms large in these novels – war history, to be precise. You learn a lot about bomb disposal during the Second World War by reading Ondaatje, just as you can pick up some interesting facts about southern Confederate history through Faulkner. But what ignites these novels on an emotional level is the love plot, wrapped around the secret of one lover’s mysterious identity. The English patient is burned beyond recognition. Charles Bon’s sophisticated, urbane appearance masks over a past that turns out to be far more southern and primal.
These lovers are lost souls caught in the revolving blades of historical change. While it would be nice to think that love provides salvation, just the opposite is true. Their passion for certain women turns into full-blown obsession, which in the end proves destructive and violent. Yet, as the reader, I always feel some inexplicable hope, some utopian horizon just around the corner….
I was mulling this over while thinking about my grandfather’s life. Kaz. He died in the 1960s, following a mental breakdown, long before I was born. I don’t know why, but for some reason I’ve got it in my head that his unraveling began during the Second World War, when the Japanese-Canadians were interned. I never met Kaz. But I can picture him in the midst of the dusty barracks, falling in love with my grandmother in those cramped quarters, the fury in his hot-tempered brain finding its only outlet in her seduction. Her violent seduction? Kaz, from all accounts, was a man who took what he wanted.
The way that Kaz met my grandmother, Masako, was strange to say the least. Unlike most Japanese immigrants, Kaz wasn't forced into internment, because his father (my great grandfather) was a well known doctor who was put in charge of providing medical services at the camps. Yet, ironically, for reasons that remain fuzzy, Kaz chose captivity. He was free - on a road trip touring the West Coast -when he met Masako. She was a beauty queen who’d won a competition for Japanese-American girls, so perhaps Kaz saw her at a pageant, as she was walking on stage and slowly turning in her rented kimono. In any case, she must have made quite the impression. He became obsessed with her and after the war’s outbreak, followed her to the internment camp.
I will never know my grandfather, yet a vestige of him grows in my imagination every time I read….
Photo from: here