The Heat of the Sun – David Rain

THOTSOur group was polarised on this book.

As one reviewer said: we get a beautifully written uninteresting story. I know little about Madame Butterfly and care less so this story simply didn’t have any interest for me. I concede that it was well-written but I just turned the pages in order to get to the end.

Some suggested that it was trying to be an epic but failed, that it was structurally contrives and a cut and paste job. The characters don’t mature. They seem to be asking the perennial question as to what life’s all about but remain unfulfilled. We were frustrated, wanting to know more about the characters.

Trouble (Pinkerton) is seriously bullied but I am tired of talk about his ‘ashplant’ when he simply means ‘walking stick.’ At the end of the book, having lost it, he reckons it weakened his leg.

Le Vol is naïve when he sees a financial crises as ‘the final crisis of capitalism that preceded a new order.’ If only.

I liked the description of elderly people in a bar: ‘Every face was old: seamed, parchment-brittle.

There’s a good description of limousines cruising to a posh party for the rich and famous.

Also of a steam bath: In the room with the slatted door, a bench, varnished darkly, ran around the walls; there were hooks for hanging clothes. Through a wide opening at the far end of the room was a steaming pool……..Covering myself with a small, thin towel, I prodded my ashplant over the slithery tiles, then lowered it, discarded the towel, and was about to ease myself into the steaming water when the great man appeared beside me, gripped my arm, and said, ‘No. First you wash.’

`I’ve washed,’ I said, ‘earlier.’

`You wash,’ he declared, and I limped after him, naked, to a bank of showerheads that protruded from one wall. Ice-cold water struck me like a blow…. No steps led down from the sides, but he slipped his bulk into the water with unexpected grace. I followed, squelching my buttocks to the tiles and pitching forward, floundering, crying out at the sudden, startling heat….the water was opaque, a greyish green. Steam coiled around us, infused with sulphurous scent…

I liked Sharpless’s passion against Hirohito: ‘This can’t be your time, it can’t! You spoke of torii and sacred stairs. In China, Hirohito’s soldiers skewer children on bayonets. They rape. They murder. They fling gasoline over houses and set them blazing. Can’t you see what you’re doing? You’re killing the Indians. You’re enslaving the Negroes. This is the logic of Meiji — the iron ships, the airplanes, the mile after mile of railroad track. This is where they lead.

Also the cruel description of Shapless:  ‘Look at you, what are you? Chicken bones, fit only to be left for the dogs! A weakling. A cripple. How can you even pretend to be a man?’

Compare that with the description of sumo-wrestler type Yamadori: I tried not to look at his ponderous swaying belly and the surprisingly large genitals that impended beneath it, like obscene fruit, from a frizz of wiry black; but he, I could tell, was looking at me. Acutely, I was aware of my spindly arms, my sunken chest, the disfiguring scars on my injured leg… Flagrantly he advanced over the tiles, feet slapping, genitals swaying, huge-nippled breasts wobbling against his sides like folds of cloth.

There’s a good description of POWs building a railroad; indeed it echoes what someone once told me who’d done such: `We had been sent to build a railroad. Only later did I figure out why. The Japs needed it to back up their forces in the Burma campaign. When completed, the thing would run between Bangkok in Siam and Rangoon in Burma — two hundred and fifty miles of jungle, hills, and rivers. Already thousands had gone    before us, POWs and coolies alike, slave labour all of us, living in bamboo huts, toiling away from dawn till dusk and beyond to fell trees, make embankments, lay sleepers and rails. There were cuttings to be dug, bridges to be built, and always the hideous       cruelties of the Japs and the jungle. `Which was worse was hard to say. When it was dry, the heat was a furnace, and dust whirled up from the railroad banks filling our eyes and noses and mouths; then came the monsoon month after month of plummeting rains, turning the jungle into a slithery labyrinth.

`How I survived, I can’t say. I had no courage. I had no shame. A Jap could sneer at me and I’d cringe like a dog. When the workday was done, I trudged the long miles to my hut and fell into oblivion for the few permitted hours. I can barely remember eating, though I must have swallowed my share of the maggoty rice and rotting fish and vegetables. Two years passed. Two years in hell.

`And what had happened to Wainwright? He had survived the Somme, but I hardly imagined he could survive this. Most likely he had died in the cattle trucks in Malaya or on our march through the Burmese jungle. There must have been ten thousand men or more, strung down mile after mile of the railroad’s route. `I fell sick. One morning as a guard passed through camp, ringing his bell, I flickered open my eyes to see only a haze in front of me. A crushing heaviness, like an anvil, pressed on my forehead. Shivery heat coursed up my limbs. The guard struck me with his baton, demanding that I rise. I feared he would kill me there and then, but he only turned away.

`Later, though at the time it seemed a fond dream, two fellows I had never seen before picked me up on a stretcher and carried me out of the camp. I was too bleary to understand what was happening, but I remember jolting in the back of a truck over mile after muddy mile, while fellows close by bellowed out dirty songs in accents I thought were Australian.

There’s a good case of defiance: The VIPs arrived at last. We heard the whip of mighty blades and a roar; a shadow passed over us, and a Mitsubishi carrier fighter came bumpily to its rest in fields beyond the tents. The guards, on their mettle now, patrolled between us, guns cocked, bellowing at us in Jap. I could hardly believe anyone too important would visit this far-flung corner, but it seemed we would pretend. Crackly loudspeakers blasted out the Jap national anthem.

`Now came the official party: a fat general, decked with ribbons; a bearded admiral; a doddering old man in a scarlet sash — and a younger fellow, upright and handsome, who walked ahead of the others. For a crazed moment I thought he might be Emperor Hirohito himself, but whoever he was, he was important.

`As the ‘VIPs passed between us, we were supposed to salute. I raised a hand to my temple: Wainwright did the same. I winked at him and grinned. I don’t think he saw me, so I tell myself that what happened next wasn’t my fault.

`We’d been in the sun a long time. Wainwright must have been light-headed; years in hellholes had done their worst. Either way, his brain was addled, though I think his last gesture had a touch of Wainwright about it all the same. He stepped out of line, turned on his heels — and thumbed his nose at Hirohito.

`There were gasps, cries. A guard struck Wainwright with a rifle butt. His slouch hat rolled across the tarmac, and he slumped to his knees and swayed.

`Now Hirohito stood before him. He pulled up Wainwright’s head by the hair, slapped his face, then turned away, barking out an order. A shot rang out.

`They left the body, face down, where it fell.

`I trembled, as if in a fever again. To think that Wainwright had been through so much! To think that all of it should end like this! The heat was fierce. Already, insects would clamour for his blood, swarming in black rivers over his eyelids, nose, and lips. The VIPs proceeded towards me. I didn’t care what happened to me now They’d killed Wainwright and they could kill me. Hirohito’s eyes flickered, wryly I thought, over the faces next to mine.

`Then he stood before me.

“‘Murderer,” I said, and spat in his face.

`The moment that followed seemed suspended, unreal. Blackness welled before me. I had so expected to be shot that I almost believed it had happened already, but when my vision came back I was alive, a guard pinched the back of my neck in the one truly vice-like grip I’ve ever felt, and Hirohito, with the same supercilious eyes, dabbed his face with a handkerchief and issued quiet orders to his retinue.

`I would have cursed him if the words would leave my lips. How could it be that I was not yet dead? It was cruel, for at once, like a scene change at the opera, everything was altered: no VIPs, no band, no guards, no prisoners ranged in shabby lines; only Wainwright, lying dead where he had fallen, and the man who had spat at Hirohito shackled to a flagpole, six feet away, in the full glare of the tropical sun.

Senator Pinkerton is blinded by the atomic bomb trial and later realizes that his son was killed at Nagasaki so he kills himself with a dagger.

There’s an apt questioning of America’s moral supremacy: O Great Republic… Land of the free… Home of the brave! One nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all! How many years have passed since this nation was brought forth? Your star-spangled banner, how long has it waved? There are truths, you tell yourself, that are self-evident: Life… Liberty… Pursuit of happiness. Government of the people, by the people, for the people. But it is you, America, not God, who tramps the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored. Where is there an end of it, the red glare of rockets, the bombs that burst in air? Why have you practised so long to learn to read? You have read a fiery gospel. You have heard the sounds of trumpets that will never call retreat… And we pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and ask ourselves when this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom.

There’s a whiff of ‘gays are traitors’ which I could have done without, though it does reflect the beliefs of the time.

Time ‘rolls on like an ever rolling stream’ that ‘bears all its sons away’: ‘Ceaselessly, the river flows and yet the water is never the same, while in the still pools the shifting foam gathers and is gone, never staying for a moment. Even so is man and his habitation.’

I like the musings at the end, at their reunion and the final symbol of the paper boats.

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1 Comment »

  1. Someone emailed me with this comment: I was excited to hear a foreigner’s view of this book that is so about America/Japan relations and the idiocy of this: THOSE WHO FAIL TO LEARN FROM HISTORY ARE DOOMED TO REPEAT IT. That is what this book is about. The meaning virtually slaps us in the face over and over and over. Your review is 75% quotes from the book. And why? You never commented on those sections you quoted.

    Woodley had the ashplant and its relevance was critical. He called it thus because that is the nickname his beloved father had given it. We learn quickly that Woodley uses the ashplant because after his father’s sudden death he attempted suicide in Paris. DURING THE OVERTURE we are told that he will lose the ashplant and it does NOT make him weaker, it actually begins a stage of realization for him.

    You confused Yamadori with Hirohito. Hirohito never bathed with Sharpless, only chained him to a tree in the woods after Sharpless spat into his face.

    There are two very common statements, coinisms, modern cliches. The first is: What goes around comes around. The second is: History repeats itself. not only does Mr Rain make this very clear in the Overture, but he pounds it home time after time after time, even in Japanese, throughout this book. He has a Japanese dagger with the inscription, “If I cannot liver with honor I shall die with honor” as a HUGE metaphor for the ignorance of the message of this book.
    Yet everyone in your group failed to see.
    And then you posted this review which fairly well “asks for it”. Read my review, then feel free to tear me apart. But regardless of what is said, any comments I made about the book were not made out of a failure to understand and any disappointments I had were not at the fault of Mr. Rain.

    His review at

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