Harper Collins 2011
314 pages Advance Readers’ Edition
Requiem, Ottawa writer Frances Itani’s newest book, is, according to the author, the product of forty or so years of on-and-off research* into one of our country’s least worthy moments – the World War II internment of Japanese-Canadian citizens in prison camps after Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbour, in 1941.
Itani, born in Belleville, in 1942, into a large Irish-Canadian family of inveterate story-tellers, rocketed to international literary stardom with the publication of her 2003 novel, Deafening, which has been sold in seventeen different countries, and was shortlisted for the IMPAC Dublin International Literary Award. The rights reputedly sold for six-digit figures. Married to an official of the International Red Cross, Itani has lived in a number of European countries, including Germany, Croatia, and England, as well as seven Canadian provinces . She has a combined BA in English and Psychology, and an MA in English Literature. A self-identified lover of research, she has been described as a serious, fair-minded, no-nonsense personality, who simply gets on with the work of writing and who has packed a lot of experience into her sixty-nine years. In person, this description seems apt.
Born just as the events in her book were unfolding, Itani seems ideally situated by history, by a genetic predisposition to tell stories, and by personal inclination, to explore the Canadian reverberations of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. In very short order, and with only hours of notification, 21,000 Japanese-Canadian citizens in British Columbia (and elsewhere in the country) were ordered out of their homes and transported to internment camps where they were held at their own expense for the duration of the war. Their land, homes, and personal effects were expropriated, with either laughably inadequate or no compensation offered. Many of those affected had been coastal fishermen, who lost their boats and access to the sea, and thus the ability to employ their skills in meaningful work. The expulsion was a combination of reflexive, racist reaction and political opportunism which interrupted the lives and dreams, and erased the efforts, of a generation of Japanese Canadian citizens, leaving families impoverished and scattered across the continent.
Binosuke Oda Okuma, the protagonist of Itani’s Requiem is a successful Canadian artist, living in Ottawa. As a small child, he experienced, first hand, life in an internment camp. His family lived in the camp for five winters, after being removed from the home his father, a fisherman, had built on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Now in his late fifties and recently widowed, with a grown son pursuing his studies away from home, Bin is alone with his thoughts for the first time in a long while. Worried that “the spirit of the whole has not been realized” he is struggling to complete a series of river paintings for an upcoming show. Poorly attuned to his own emotional life, he makes what seems to him a snap decision to drive, cross-country, from Ottawa to British Columbia, to try and find the old internment camp, high in the British Columbian mountains, on the banks of the Fraser River, with only Basil, his faithful basset hound for company. The Fraser River, and his experiences there, have left an indelible impression on Bin and shaped his life story. As he explains,
so real is my childhood river, I can call up at any moment its steep banks, the steady rush of fast and muddy water, the ribbon of blue-green coming in from the side…
But, as Lena, his deceased wife once commented,
in the way that rivers [hold] stories, so do roads and pathways
The road that Bin is now travelling represents a return to the physical and emotional landscapes of his childhood, the solitary journey forcing him back into his memories, and a revisiting , from an adult perspective, of the repercussions of his family’s exile, one of which was a lifetime estrangement from his father, who, now in his eighties, still lives in British Columbia. As Bin notes,
it’s going to be a long journey back.
Itani is what I would call a quiet writer. Her prose is spare and simple, and Bin’s narration floats on the surface of things – small, inconsequential details of quotidian life often obscuring deeper significance. Tendrils of meaning connect through layers and echoes in the prose – the mechanism by which the writing supports the themes of isolation, dislocation, resilience and reconciliation, and the chaotic journey of life is holistic, and difficult to parse. There is, throughout, a sense that life sets up repetitive patterns – and this idea is specifically articulated in reference to Beethoven’s music, itself a motif that repeats throughout the book. Fragments of Bin’s childhood memories are echoed in scenes from his own family life with Lena and his son Greg, often near water. Amongst Bin’s collection of small keepsakes, is a tiny clay fisherman with a broken leg, conjuring his father. His son, the product of a secure and loving home, is, nevertheless, a worrier – always on the lookout for a hidden catastrophe.
Itani is, at times, especially successful at clarifying an idea, or emotional tone with image, and particularly landscape. One of a number of examples occurs when Bin and Basil have been forced to stop for the evening at an isolated and decaying lodge and Bin becomes an accidental witness to a stranger’s encounter with her fate. Bin watches as the unknown traveller reacts to the resident tea-reader’s prediction that she will not have a long life:
… the recipient of the news has stilled. She is staring out the window at what I am also seeing: the path she has just climbed; the narrow rays of disappearing light; darkness closing in; a small river that is no more than a murky blur as it curves around the base of a hill of shadows.
Concept, here, is beautifully embodied in image.
In another example, Bin’s impending separation from his family is skillfully foreshadowed in his fear of being pulled off his father’s back by the river’s current, in a scene in which he is ferried across a dangerous portion of the Fraser by his father. In the end, he is, significantly, set safely on his feet in shallow water, although he gazes back across the “dark channel of rough water [which]had so easily divided [his] family into two parts.”
Itani also successfully employs image and landscape to establish character. In the following river scene, she economically uses landscape to imbue Lena’s character with stillness, strength and certainty:
Some of the rocks were slippery with moss, a vivid green that shone up through the water. But the rock Lena chose was moss-free, ancient, grey and solid.
In another complicated scene, Bin recalls telling Lena a story about himself, as a young man, on a quest to explore the great rivers of Europe. As he sits alone on a barge, waiting to begin a river journey, he is witness to a quiet moment between an older couple,
a moment of such intimacy that the young man, in agony, turned away. At that moment, he would have given anything to experience the kind of intimacy he was witnessing.
Fluttering over the scene was a colourful collection of multinational flags. Again, important concepts are presented as image – the sense of isolation and the yearning for stability and connection that are so much a part of the immigrant experience, compounded in Bin’s personal story by a second great upheaval, fused with the overarching question of nationality, as represented by the flags.
Itani spent her early formative years in an isolated community on the banks of a turbulent stretch of the Ottawa River. It is perhaps not surprising then, that rivers saturate her story. The Saguenay, the Saco, the great St. Lawrence, the Ottawa, the Dunk, the Gatineau, the Enz, the Nerepis, the Wabigoon and, of course, the Fraser – all make an appearance. Queried on the matter, she admits that rivers and water are a common motif in her writing, equating rivers with life itself.* More about this in a subsequent article, but suffice to say, for the moment, that rivers provide a controlling metaphor for the story.
Early experiences taught Bin that life can be turbulent, unpredictable, and full of injustice, and that happiness is not something to be trusted. He thought that by distancing himself from his past he could put it all behind him. As with so many who shared the experience, the emotional repression and distance, so necessary for survival at the time, has prevented him from successfully re-assessing his memories from an adult perspective, and thus coming to terms with his life. It takes a solitary journey across the very country that has caused his family so much grief, and through the emotional landscapes of his memory, for him to finally experience an epiphany of understanding that leads to an essential reconciliation, and to realize that his father, through great personal sacrifice, did, indeed, ferry him across a dark and dangerous section of the river of life and set him down safely, on his feet, in shallow water.
*Personal communication, Minden, Ontario, October 30, 2011
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