Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 10, 2009

Carry Me Across the Water by Ethan Canin

Carry me Across the WaterIt’s just a coincidence that I just have read another book about an old man looking back over his life and coming to terms with it.  My local library had a bin full of books by writers coming to the Melbourne Writers Festival, and Carry Me Across the Water was one of them.  It’s disappointing that I can’t go to Canin’s session – it’s on a Friday when I have to be at work. 

It’s a lovely book.  August Kleinman is an elderly man, non-religious but Jewish enough for Hitler’s henchman to have killed his father and grandfather in Hamburg in 1933.  Two months beforehand, August’s mother had had the presience to leave; her husband would not.  Mother and son fled to England, and from there to New York.  August changed his name from Gertzmann when his mother remarried, and when the time came, went to war against the Japanese.  In his old age, having made a fortune in America, raised a family and buried his beloved wife Ginger, he needs to make his peace, and returns to Japan.

The story is told as a patchwork, back and forth in time and place, gradually filling in the fragments of this man’s life.  I was enchanted by the sequence in which August babysits his grandson.  The young parents are religious: August’s daughter-in-law Claudine converted to marry Jimmy and they are off to services for Kol Nidre.  Jimmy shows August the intricacies of the modern plastic nappy and the new world of velvet change tables.  Claudine, listening on the baby monitor downstairs, bursts out laughing at the exchanges between neurotic, patronising Jimmy and his bemused Pop.  The chasm of generational change and the helicopter parent encapsulated in just three pages.  Beautiful!

However, I’m a little bit claustrophobic – and so vivid is the writing that I nearly had to put this book aside in a funk of fear. In the last ghastly months of the war, August is sent to an island near Okinawa where, in the eerie silences of an enemy refusing to admit defeat, snipers pick off the GIs and booby-trap the bodies of their own dead.  August has to take his turn at securing the countless caves where the Japanese hide, and this means inching forward through impossibly narrow crevices into unknown darkness, unable to turn around in the confined space.  The only way onward is forward and likelihood of becoming wedged, trapped in there forever, is depicted so realistically that the experience of reading it almost made me panic. For me, the fear of meeting hostile Japanese within the cave was secondary, yet Canin creates the intensity of August’s dread terror so powerfully that it haunts his character long, long afterwards. 

August is unable to express this terror to anyone.  His postwar reunion with his mother and Ginger is an anticlimax.  They think him a hero without knowing what he has done.

Of his ordeal in the cave he said nothing, for the tale of his fright seemed both too vivid and too bitter to reveal.  They wouldn’t care what he had done, that he’d risked his life for the Allied Forces…He had been picked up like sand in the cyclone of the times but then, miraculously, set back down.  There was no more to it than that.  The war was over and he had lived.  (p72-3)

Yom Kippur is the Jewish Day of Atonement, celebrated as all these observances are, with family.  August scandalises Jimmy by saying it is his favourite day because ‘It’s a good day to get things done.  The lines are shorter – all the Jews are in Shul.  Who needs to atone?‘ (p54)  Claudine is amused, she loves this gentle, generous old man.   She says she’s atoning for ‘her lack of care about the world‘ (p55) – not keeping up with the evils of the world, not doing Tzedaka: a sharing of yourself to do whatever can be done (informing yourself, giving to charity).  Jimmy admits to atoning for spiteful things at work, which amuses August – he teases Jimmy by telling him that being spiteful at work was something he used to rather enjoy.

Like the old Catholic ritual of Confession, the Yom Kippur ritual involves admitting error to oneself and declaring it to someone else, and August suddenly realises that he too is expected to participate.  Surprising himself as much as his family, he says that he is atoning for the hoarding of money, ‘the greatest mistake of my days.’ (p57)  This is puzzling because he’s very philanthropic with his money.  And then we see him set off for Japan with some tulip bulbs.  He has restitution to make.

This is a deeply moving and satisfying book, except for one element of the plot that bothers me (the details of which I won’t reveal for those who haven’t read the book).  Suffice to say that at one point in his business career, August is confronted by a man who threatens him.  His reaction seems quite out of character, and his subsequent behaviour more so.  I was puzzled about why Canin included this incident.  To avoid idealising his character, perhaps?

Anyway, it’s a terrific story and I shall certainly seeking out Canin’s other books at the festival bookshop!


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