Rivers of Life in Frances Itani’s Requiem

Itani, Frances: Requiem
Part II
Click here for Part I

Water and particularly rivers have been recurring elements in Itani’s writing (see for example, Leaning, Leaning Over Water) and the author herself has stated that she connects rivers to the idea of life,* the current a collective of individual stories, or narrative lines, the rapids equated with the rough and tumble of life’s trials, the still pools with moments of peace and grace.  Rivers, we are told, hold stories.  As Bin tells his young son, “I do hear the river,” (…) and “I listen because it has a story to tell.”

The role of the river as a metaphor for a life’s story is most clearly articulated in a key scene, which encapsulates the central conflict of the story, and holds within it a truth with which Bin must reconcile in order to come to terms with his own life. The scene unfolds in Bin’s memory as he recalls being ferried across a dangerous patch of the Fraser River on his father’s back, on a rare and fateful day the family spent relaxing, playing and picnicking  together on the river’s banks.  Bin’s father has already escorted Bin’s older sister and brother across the channel, and returns for his younger son.

Because I was small and he was big, he hoisted me onto his back and began to swim though the dark current, out and out to the island and the swiftest part of the river.

Bin’s state of mind boomerangs from terror to exhilaration and back as he rides the treacherous water clinging to his father’s back, terrified of slipping off, but at the same time, fascinated by the changing colours of the river’s current. He is relieved to finally see the river bottom at the other side, signalling safe passage, but he notes that,

before I had time to be thankful, I was lifted in one strong movement and set on my feet in shallow water.

Bin looks back at his mother who has chosen to stay on the far side of the river and notes,

I turned to look and I was surprised to see that the dark channel of rough water had so easily divided our family into two parts.

Little did  Bin know that his life story and that of his family was about to diverge, physically as well as metaphorically, and that this was the last day they would exist together as a cohesive unit. Soon, Bin’s father follows through on the decision that supplies Bin his two surnames, and gives his talented, artistic son away to an elder of the camp, a widowed musician who has no children of his own.  The young Bin, understandably shattered, is unforgiving and judgmental of his father’s actions, insisting on interpreting them as a betrayal, a stance he maintains into adulthood. So, the scene, metaphorically, foreshadows the break in the family that is about to occur as a result of the father’s actions, and the emotional trauma that will be such a powerful shaping force in Bin’s life.  Also, buried in the scene, however, is the key to reconciliation for Bin, although it takes him almost a lifetime, and a lonely journey across the landscape of his country and his memory, to rediscover it.  What Bin, as a child, failed to factor into his reaction was the father’s strength and protectiveness, and the fact that he had set his younger son down, safely, in shallow water.  Although harrowing at the time, his adoption by his “Second Father,” provided Bin with a far more sympathetic environment than his own father ever could and access to the education he would need to realize his life’s potential.  The father’s emotional strength, which Bin as a child interpreted as uncaring coldness, was what carried the son safely across the turbulence and upheaval of the internment camps — a whirlpool in which many lives were lost or ruined– and set him down safely, in a much gentler part of life’s river.

Viewed in the light of the previous associations, it is easier to understand the metaphorical role of the river throughout the book.  Bin is (ostensibly) on a quest to complete a series of river paintings, in anticipation of an upcoming show.  He has, up until now, been unsatisfied with the series, noting that “the spirit of the whole had not been realized.” In other words, his synthesis of his own narrative was not complete — was missing some essential element.  The reader suspects that the missing element is Bin’s relationship to his father, perhaps far sooner than Bin himself.

The urge to filter the essence of rivers through his own artistic sensibility has been a lifelong preoccupation for Bin and functions as a metaphor for coming to terms with life. At first, he is intent on imposing his own vision on the river (an understandable reaction considering his experiences so far).  As far back as his time in the camps, Bin remembers,

I decided I would draw a story of my own…I was going to draw a great river below the camp. I was going to draw the island in its middle, the one I had been taken to on First Father’s back.  But I would change the story. I was going to give it an ending of my own choosing.

But later, he intuits that the interpretation of the river may be a matter of personal perspective:

I began to understand that there could be a soft or a hard look to water, that there could be many ways of depicting rivers, that this was a matter of technique and choice.

And so, Bin is drawn back to the banks of the great Fraser River, the site of his childhood trauma, and his father, where, this time, he takes the time to be thankful, bringing his life story into correct alignment with that of his father, and thus realizing the spirit of the whole.

____________

*Personal communication, Minden, ON, 2011

 
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