So my sober friend and I walked along the cold clean beaches, sniffed ozone from the salty sweep of ocean and talked sobriety. Friendship is a great thing.
Then I came home and buttered parsnips and helped tidy the house and exercise dogs, sat up in bed reading Peter Carey’s Wrong about Japan, a book I am enjoying for all kinds of reasons. I woke at 2am and wondered if I should get up and look at manga artwork on the Internet, but fortunately turned over in bed and went back to sleep instead. And dreamt about being lost in Asia.
Several years ago I went on a working trip to Asia, taking flights across northern China, trekking through Cambodia, wandering down the Mekong Delta, looking at rooftop gardens on the Peak in Hong Kong, going to produce markets in Singapore and BangKok, exploring temple gardens and forest monasteries and sitting in on sculpture demonstrations in Laos or Hoi An, conducting interviews with the help of translators, writing at full tilt. Over and over again, I realised that my assumptions about what I was seeing were wrong, irrelevant, besides the point. Asian culture was opaque in many ways, inaccessible, more complex and paradoxical than I could have guessed.
But I would wake at night while sailing in the South China seas and go out to watch the sun coming up like a thunderclap and marvel that I was really here in the golden shimmering heart of Asia. The immense brown floodwaters of the Mekong Delta took my breath away — and there were epiphytic jewelled orchids in the jungles, lively night markets on the Chao Praya River, junks and sampans with full-bellied sails to watch in the ‘fragrant harbour’ of Hong Kong. There was Chinese medicine, feng shui principles in soaring architecture, meditation classes in lush city parks. I was dazed and enchanted by so much.
A smallish group of us were travelling together back and forth across Asia, writing features articles, giving papers at conferences, researching specialised interests. The first evening at supper, sailing out of Danang, a writer and business consultant in her mid-40s whom I shall call Erika admitted she had struggled with bulemia and related eating disorders since her teens. We were sympathetic, noticed she ate almost nothing.
By the end of that first week, Erika had become a frightening and infuriating liability for the group. She would get up at 3am and lift weights, swim scores of laps of the hotel pool, start the day exhausted. She wanted us to eat more, bought sugary cakes and sweets as gifts, would attend formal luncheons and upset our hosts by eating nothing, fell asleep during work functions, locked herself into bathrooms and came out reeking of vomit and acrid sweat.
After three weeks, we were at our wit’s end and considered having Erika sent home under some kind of psychiatric escort. None of us had ever lived with somebody suffering from an eating disorder, and we were unprepared for the rages and starving preoccupation with food, the accusations that we thought her fat and demands that we help her not eat, help her lose weight, help her control what was happening. She could not walk past a shop window without stopping to watch herself in the glass and deplore her huge bulging hips and thighs. In reality she was almost emaciated and ill, frenzied, manic. The stress of travel had thrown her off-balance. She flew home alone and broke off contact with us.
Although I was exhilarated by the travelling, I had my own demons to face and was often withdrawn and irritable. I didn’t drink at all on that journey and the white-knuckling got to me. It wasn’t a trial run for sobriety because I intended to drink as much as possible when I returned home. Stopping for short periods was not especially difficult, and I did not want to start drinking in a strange country and find myself unable to stop.
In addition, I had breezily forgotten to organise medical insurance before flying out and consequently dared not get ill on that trip. My employers or hosts or colleagues would have to pay upfront if I needed hospitalisation. So I did not drink and just kept fending off Erika and working as hard as I could.
To relax I began reading a copy of Kazuo Ishiguro’s A Pale View of Hills and found I could not put the book down, read it on buses and in taxis. The sadness of the narrative filled me to the brim with an unspecific sorrow and tearfulness. It is a story about the suicide of a young woman named Keiko, but also has to do with the ambiguous, disturbing memories of a expatriate Japanese woman recalling her life in Japan during the Second World War. Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki and moved to Britain as a small child, and he drew on his mother’s wartime memories when writing Pale Hills..
Only after I finished this slow beautiful novel did I begin to understand its impact on me. For the first time ever I sat and thought about what it must have been like to live in a country that was also an island, a deeply loved country with an ancient feudal and military history, a country of great beauty — devastated by firebombing during the war, then two of its greatest cities just obliterated by the dropping of the atom bomb. An elderly Japaneses gentleman from Tokyo supervised the landscaping and maintenance of the hotel gardens where I was staying, and I asked through a translator if he had been living in Japan during the war. Was it a presumptuous or intrusive question? He answered courteously.
He said that he had lost everyone he knew in the bombing of Hiroshima, his mother’s family, his father’s family, his school teachers and fellow pupils, and that for him the world had ended at the age of nine, He had forced himself to begin again from scratch, learning how to speak — the trauma had left him mute for a year or two – and that he had found himself again by discovering manga.
The popular art form of manga, sold as cartoons or comics, developed after World War II and many of the themes depicted have to do with a new atomic age, wide-eyed warrior children abandoned and fending for themselves in an apocalyptic landscape of mutants and robots, a cyborgian and futuristic fantasy set in cities reduced to rubble by nuclear strikes or in magical mountain landscapes with Shinto temples and haunted wells. Many admirers of manga and anime films see in the stylised and at times naive artwork the symbolic transformation of a Japanese psyche wounded and shattered by nuclear war and occupation. How does one go on living after atomic warfare except as a mutant ninja sea turtle?
I am sorry for this long and inconclusive post. It is all about sobriety and healing in one way — that trip made me long for a different and more focused way of life — and yet I am reminded how little I understand of others who have endured war and exile, catastrophe or emotional illnesses such as eating disorders, a madness that is not alcoholism. I hope Erika recovered. I wish I could have talked more with that elderly Japanese man, so heroic and restrained. I wish I had more hope for Western civilization, as we choose to call it.