Friday, December 20, 2013

The Early Life of a God

The Character of RainThe Character of Rain 
by Amélie Nothomb

“Water beneath me, water above me, water in me--I was water. How appropriate that the one definition of the Japanese character for my name was "rain." I, too, was precious and copious, inoffensive and deadly, silent and raucous, joyous and despicable, live-giving and corrosive, pure and grasping, patient and insidious, musical and off-key--but more than any of that, and beyond all those things, I was invulnerable.
...From the heights and depths of my diluvian life, I knew that I was rain and rain was rapture. Some realised it would be best to accept me, let me overwhelm them, let me be who I was. There was no greater luxury than to fall to earth, in sprinkles or in buckets, lashing faces and drenching countryside, swelling sources and overflowing rivers, spoiling weddings and consecrating burials, the blesssing and curse of the skies.
My rainy childhood thrived in Japan like a fish in water.
Tired of my unending passion for my element, Nishio-san would finally call to me, "Out of the lake! You'll dissolve!"
Too late. I had dissolved long before.”   ― Amélie Nothomb

What is it like to be treated like a god? According to this novel the Japanese treat newborn children like gods until about their third year of life. The newborn in this story is certainly more precocious than I would expect most of these babies, but in spite of her extraordinary intelligence, or perhaps because of it, she is careful in how and to whom she demonstrates her true nature.
With that brief introduction I must say that this short novel is very different from almost anything I have ever read. The story is primarily told in the first person, but that person being a newborn there are necessarily exceptions to this narrative mode. For example, early on the following occurs:

"The cradle became too small. The tube was transplanted to a crib, the same one used previously by its older brother and sister.
“Maybe moving the Plant will wake it up,” said the mother, sighing.
It didn't.
From the beginning of the universe, God had slept in the same room as its parents. This didn't pose problems for them, of course. They could forget it was even there."

The perspective of this very young girl is one of the most interesting aspects of the story. Everything is new for her thus her reactions are different than her parents or the reader. She takes delight in her senses , but is preternaturally judicious in the use of them. For a long time she did not speak and when she did decide to speak she chose her words very carefully. She started by naming things, in a very philosophic way sort of like a miniature Plato. Or Heraclitus, whom the narrator quotes using his famous observation that "nothing endures but change" early in the story when the little god appeared to be exceptionally unchanging. That being only her outward appearance she, when the narrative shifts to her point of view we realize that she is taking in everything that is happening around her and is truly changing on the inside. She was seeing and in doing so making choices.
Eventually she begins to speak and makes a great discovery:
"Careful examination of what other people said led me to the conclusion that speaking was as much a creative as a destructive act. I decided I would need to be careful about what to do with this discovery."

Thus her life progresses slowly, but carefully, and this occurs under the tutelage of two nannies. They are exact opposites of each other nullifying each other out in a sense, at least they would be doing so except the little god had her say and she preferred the nice nanny, Nishio-san, who thought she was beautiful and treated her like a god, to the unlikable nanny, Kashima-san, who refused her, denied her, and did not adore the little god; all this in spite of a "charm" offensive that with few exceptions had no effect.
The story is odd in its perspective, but gradually a rationale of a sort begins to emerge. I would call that rationale discovery; the child's discovery of the world around her and both her delight and dislike of the experience and consequences of that discovery. Her experiences are fascinating, like the experience of a rain storm:
"Sometimes I left the shelter of the roof and lay on top of the victim to participate in the onslaught. I chose the most exciting moment, the final pounding downpour, the moment in the bout when the clouds delivered a punishing, relentless hail of blows, in a booming fracas of exploding bones."
"THE RAIN SOMETIMES WON, and when it did it was called a flood."

This short novel only chronicles the first three years of the child's life, enough time for her to decide to become Japanese, to discover people and nature, and ultimately to make a choice about whether she would continue to live and grow. As for that last choice you will have to read the book yourself to find out her answer.

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Brian Joseph said...

This does sound very creative and out of the box. The author came up with a great idea here and it sounds as if she handled it very well.

The "choice" sounds intriguing!

James said...

Thanks for your comment. This was a new author for me; recommended by a friend. I'm glad I read her short novel.