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The road not taken, or a predestined outcome?

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Special to The Times

Readers of “The Gift of Rain,” Tan Twan Eng’s sweeping debut novel about the Japanese occupation of Malaya during World War II, may be reminded of the debate over free will and predestination in “Lawrence of Arabia” that neatly divides that film into halves: optimistic and somber.

To attack the port of Aqaba from its undefended rear, Lawrence’s army circles through the desert. A soldier is lost in a sandstorm and Lawrence goes back for him, despite his Arab allies’ insistence that the man’s death from heat and thirst has already been “written.”

Lawrence rescues the man and proclaims in the name of the rationalistic, self-willed West, “Nothing is written.” But when Aqaba is captured, the man is arrested for looting, and Lawrence has to shoot him. So was his death fated after all?

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Tan’s protagonist, Philip Hutton, seems freer than most to choose his destiny when, in 1939, at the age of 16, he meets Hayato Endo. Hutton is the son of a wealthy British trader on the island of Penang -- off the west coast of Malaya -- and the trader’s Chinese second wife.

Steeped in two cultures but at home in neither, alienated from both sides of his family, he is fully accepted only by Endo, a Japanese diplomat who rents a small neighboring island from Hutton’s father.

Endo teaches the boy aikido and becomes his beloved sensei, to whom, in the tradition of Asian martial arts, absolute loyalty is due.

Hutton is happy to guide Endo on tours of Penang and the Malayan mainland. When war breaks out, however, and Endo becomes second-in-command of the Japanese forces that occupy Penang, Hutton realizes that his mentor also was a spy. Inadvertently, he has helped bring destruction on his country and his family.

Endo, sincere in his way, believes in reincarnation. In his view, he and Hutton have been tragically linked for centuries, in life after life.

All he can do in this life is, through aikido, give the boy some tools to cope with his fate.

Nonetheless, for Hutton the war years are a torment. He collaborates with the Japanese in a vain attempt to protect his family; this means he must witness and even participate in atrocities.

To save his sanity and his soul, he plays a double game, warning local resistance fighters and saving lives when he can. He is widely hated and trusted by no one.

After 1945, Hutton inherits his father’s company and stays in Penang, viewed as a savior by some people and as a war criminal by others. He lives a solitary life for decades until, in the novel’s framing story, a Japanese woman, Michiko Murakami, who knew and loved Endo, comes to interview him. Dying of radiation sickness from the Hiroshima bomb, Murakami persuades Hutton to finally unburden himself about the past.

“To have the awareness that there is a greater power directing our destinies must give great comfort,” she tells him.

“I’ve never felt blessed,” he replies. “There must be free will to choose. Do you know the poem about the two roads, and the one not taken?”

Murakami flicks Robert Frost -- and the West -- aside. “Yes. That has always amused me, because who created the two roads in the first place?”

Yet we are Western readers, and “The Gift of Rain,” nominated for the 2007 Man Booker Prize in Britain, is a stately, even old-fashioned Western-style novel.

For us, Tan’s emphasis on fate saps interest from a book that, despite its lush descriptions, cross-cultural awareness and insight into the spirituality of aikido -- the author, a Penang-born, London-educated lawyer, is a first-dan practitioner of that art -- has stilted dialogue and, in the wartime scenes, a weakness for pulpy melodrama.

Where there’s melodrama there ought at least to be romance, but Hutton has no romantic interest in anyone. As a student, he is deeply bound to Endo, and later he has a close friendship with a Malayan resistance fighter his own age. He doesn’t seem to be gay; in fact, he comes across as totally asexual.

Even the terrible moral dilemmas that preoccupy him during the war can’t disguise the oddity of this. Nobody remarks on it, either -- not Hutton himself or anyone he knows in the course of his long life -- and this, in such a formalistic package as “The Gift of Rain,” is odder still.

--

Michael Harris is a critic and author of the novel “The Chieu Hoi Saloon.”


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