Friday 5 May 2017

Gone to the Forest

(April 2017)

Bouncing into this straight off The North Water is not something I’d necessarily advise to anyone else, as both are short but well crafted stories about unpleasant people in unpleasant places doing unpleasant things. I’m also not entirely sure what either book was trying to say.
Gone to the Forest is set in a nameless country—a mid-to-late twentieth century colonial gestalt drawing from South America, SE Asia, and, most noticeably, sub-Saharan Africa. It focuses on a group of white settlers: the iron-willed patriarch of a vast farm estate, his meek son, and a girl initially set up as a fiancée for the son, but who soon becomes the father’s mistress. With the possible exception of the son (who, as the principal viewpoint character is nonetheless entirely complicit in everything else), they are all thoroughly horrible people, and in both this and the odd isolation of the principal farmhouse setting there’s a lot in common with Wuthering Heights. If I’m going to be making links to my recent reading list, however, the clearest one is to A Grain of Wheat, for no sooner has the father decided to cuckold his son than the farm finds itself broken up by the new ‘native’ government, its lands allocated to indigenous people and overrun by rebel ‘oathtakers’. Then the girl becomes pregnant and the father fatally ill.

The central metaphor—the messy, painful death of colonialism—is thunderously unsubtle, but around that flit a whole load of other images and allusions that I don’t really grasp the point of, and I’m not really sure the author did either. There are horses and fish farms, drugs and step-brothers, gang-rapes and volcanoes. They all whirl around each other (it’s surprisingly repetitive for such a short book) without ever really coalescing into something that might give their total weight a greater meaning.

At the sentence level, however, the writing is excellent: detached yet evocative, precise yet captivating. Kitamura can write, that’s for sure. If it were welded to something more conceptually robust then this would be a very good book; as it is it’s something to which I feel compelled to apply that most double-edged of descriptors: “promising.”

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