Monday, November 21, 2005



Two separate pieces of art which I've ingested over the weekend have converged in my brain: Hirokazu Koreeda's 2004 film, Nobody Knows, (available on DVD) and John Fowles Journals, Volume 1. In both, there is a common and deeply disturbing theme. Told from different perspectives, both deal with a parent who chooses to abandon a child or children for love. I'm not talking about the rather common experience in which the child is left with the other parent, visitation is arranged, the child's physical and psychic welfare addressed, etc. No, both of these works deal with a more utter abandonment. Me first. You, not at all.

Oh God, I sound harsh. Judgmental. And amazingly, even the film, which is based on a true story about a case of tragic and criminal child neglect, somehow skirts judgment. The mother who leaves her twelve year old son to care for his three younger siblings, seems so childlike herself that the viewer is denied the satisfaction of pure blame.

The events would be impossible, but for these things: the children have never been enrolled in school, and have been trained to stay quiet since the landlord is only aware that there is one child in the cramped apartment. Thus, the oldest boy is the only one allowed outside.

Filmed over the course of a year, the film is mesmerizing in its dailiness, its accretion of small details. As the year progresses, we watch the children grow and the situation deteriorate incrementally as it does in life. By the end of the film, I felt I had lived the year in that claustrophobic and increasingly foul smelling, impoverished apartment with them.

Yuuya Yagira, pictured above, plays the oldest boy, Akira, in a role that earned him a well-deserved award for best actor at the Cannes Film Festival. Accustomed to responsibilities far beyond his years, and with an first child's sense of competence, he initially does his best to fulfill his mother's orders, to pay the bills, keep the children fed, the chores and home school lessons done. But eventually, the boy in him emerges, both triumphantly and tragically. He spends the last of the money on video games, recklessly allows the children out of the house, joins a baseball team, leaving the younger children unattended for hours.

The water and lights are turned off in the apartment; the children frequently go hungry; and eventually tragedy ensues. The ending refuses us the satisfaction of resolution. There are no words of summary scrolled across the screen to tell us what became of the family on whom this story is modelled. There is only the vision of Akira walking through the street with his younger brother, wounded and strangely resilient.

In John Fowles' journal, the story of child abandonment is told from a different perspective. This time it's the lover who has seduced the parent away from her husband and two year old child who speaks. Fowles meets Elizabeth Christy on the Greek island of Spetsai where both he and her husband are engaged as teachers at a Jesuit school. While he conveys the transcendent passion of their love well, there's no masking the writer's selfishness. He resists the affair initially, not out of concern for her husband (who is supposedly a friend) or her daughter, Anna, but because of the scandal it might cause him.

Later, when a break it made, Fowles makes it clear that he will not accept Elizabeth if it means taking her child as well. He deliberately refers to Anna, as "it," and callously describes her physical deterioration after her mother leaves. When her father is unable or unwilling to care for her, Anna is placed in a convent. Though this is not a criminal case, like the one portrayed in the Koreeda film, it is at times nearly as chilling. In the case of Akira and his siblings, at least they had the emotional comfort of one another.

And yet, this is not a short story which might leave the reader in easy judgment against these self-absorbed lovers. It is a journal that spans the course of sixteen years. Though he does not say it, by the end of the journal I have the sense that both he and Elizabeth suffered more private pain and lingering guilt for their choice than any outward punishment or judgment might have inflicted.

And that, I suppose, is the trouble with judgment. We never know the heart, the motivation or consequent suffering of those we condemn. If we did, I suspect we would lower our heads and withhold our words.

In Blog News, the English site, troubled diva, which accepts nominations for the blog post of the week, has chosen my November 7th post, The Art of Seduction, as this week's winner. Many thanks to Sarsparilla who nominated me, and also to the judges. Not only have you lured new readers to the Garden, you've led me to some great writing.


robin andrea said...

Maybe art is comprised of those doomed characters who always make heart-rending choices that those of us in our everyday lives never would. It is what makes art, "butchered out of their own bodies good to eat a thousand years"
(hat tip to Allen Ginsberg).

rdl said...

another great post here and congrats. on the other post of the week.

Patry Francis said...

r.d.: I think you're right. Good art reminds us that those doomed characters live inside us, too, and thus inspires mercy. Wonderful quote from Ginsberg!

r: thanks!

diana: Yes! Especially when it's from two different perspectives.

leslee said...

Easier to forgive the child-mother in the film than Fowles, I think. But I know how people can do unthinkingly cruel things when they're younger that they are later able to reflect on with pain - sometimes. Interesting post - and congrats on the honors for your Seduction post!

Patry Francis said...

leslee: I wonder how Elizabeth Fowles' daughter--now an adult-- feels about it. In the journal, he makes it a point to say that she grows up to become a well-balanced and happy young woman. In most cases, I think children tend to be very forgiving.

DTclarinet said...

First off, congrats on the book deal!

I'm impressed with the diversity of your blogroll. Often you find rolls which mimic each other and click together.

Re. this post- this line is a ringer- "...the trouble with judgment. We never know the heart, the motivation or consequent suffering of those we condemn." Pithy. So true. So true. I often play devils advocate, even with friends, when they are hypocritical about judgment. They don't like it, but only a mirror can help us clean up our act. (we're all guilty, but we can try to help each other stay honest)

You write well. Congrats on having your past post featured.


Lane Watson said...

Both sound great and I must pick them up. A very heartfelt and passionate post. I also enjoyed the two previous post. I like your voice and look forward to reading more.

Patry Francis said...

garnet: thanks for your comment--and your insights. As far as the diversity of my blogroll, it's much like my friends in real life. Put a group of them in a room together and it's quite a mish mosh. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't!

hungry writer: Your words and your visit are much appreciated. I like your butter container, too! Really need to get another pic fir myself.

Dale said...

It's terrible to imagine the obscurity and trouble of mind that would have to prevail in someone to make them abandon a child.

Fowles always struck me, from reading his novels, as a man who knew himself but slenderly. When a man like that is talented and persuasive he can sow suffering far and wide.

Patry Francis said...

Dale: That's a very important insight. It highlights the often neglected responsibility of an artist to nurture their humanity as well as their craft.