Requiem: A Novel

  • Frances Itani
  • Atlantic Monthly
  • 317 pp.

A moving novel spotlighting the silent dignity of Japanese-Canadians interned during World War II.

Reviewed by Amanda Holmes Duffy

Canadian writer Frances Itani is at the top of her game, but many American readers may not know her work. She had written nine books before her American debut with the novel Deafening, which won the Commonwealth Prize in 2004. Requiem, her second novel, is less self-consciously poetic than Deafening — yet stronger because of it; especially since the facts underpinning this narrative are shocking to learn.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, 21,000 Japanese-Canadians were forcibly removed from their homes and interned in inland camps. Itani describes this as “a highly organized maneuver” exercised in conjunction with the internment of 114,000 Japanese-Americans. Before reading Requiem, I knew of the American experience but not the Canadian one and had never imagined the details. The novel begins after the sudden death of his wife, when Bin Okuma returns to British Columbia and the scene of some terrible childhood memories.

Bin, a painter and an articulate but gentle narrator, recalls the heartbreak of his family’s departure: “In the morning, after we are herded onto the Princess Maquinna which brings us to Port Alberni, where a train waits to take us to Nanaimo, on the east coast of the island, and from there to Vancouver by ferry — we stand with our hands gripping the railings, and watch while looters from the village move swiftly, running from house to house as the boat tugs out of the bay. The looters cannot get inside our house quickly enough. They cannot wait until the boat is out of sight. Almost everything left behind is dragged from our home. The grandfather clock, tables, chairs, linens, pillows, cutlery, china, sets of dishes, photograph albums, wedding gifts and heirlooms my parents had been given at the time of their marriage. Even the toy boats Hiroshi and Keiko and I had banged together from boards and nails, boats to which we’d attached string, and dragged through shallow water from the safety of shore — even those are scooped up.”

The interned community must become self-sufficient. They must build their own accommodations but are not permitted to cross the bridge to the mainland. In the first summer, they build 60 shacks. They must order groceries every two weeks from the mainland and other supplies by catalog. Lack of clean water is a constant concern, and the heat of the summer is as dreadful as the extreme cold of winter.

Bin’s road trip and his difficulty coming to terms with Lena’s death are beautifully juxtaposed with his childhood recollections. We learn how his background shaped the man who always struggles to protect others from danger. “It was part of the fates. There could be sudden losses — every Japanese-Canadian knew that.” The concept of random hatred threads through the story, and although an official government apology came in 1988, Bin, like other Canadians of Japanese descent, still puts up with prejudice.

Like Deafening, Requiem is largely the story of waiting out a war, of a rage and heartache just beneath the surface of the characters. It is also a story of silent dignity, elegantly explored through the metaphor of making music you cannot hear. Okuma-san, a dedicated pianist in the camp, practices by using a piano drawn on a plank of wood. He’s an expert in Beethoven, who, as we know, wrote much of his music after losing his hearing. For Bin, listening to Okuma-san practice means “the rapping of fingers for an extraordinarily long time. When it was in progress, Okuma-san was in a dream state and I was kept far outside of this. I knew he was unaware of me watching. At times, a look of melancholy — perhaps even pain — came over his face and at first I was worried. But then his face would be calm again, as if he could hear, at that moment, what no one else could.” This passage might equally describe Grania, the protagonist in Deafening.

But Requiem is also the story of fathers and sons — of the failings in these relationships and the unspoken currents between them. At one stage, Bin remembers a beautiful swim with his son Greg, and how Greg described it to Lena as the happiest day of his life. It makes a bitter contrast with an outing Bin takes with his father, across the channel at the camp, to look over the fast-moving river. Bin thinks it’s the happiest day of his own life until a stunning development overwrites the experience, transforming it from a joyous father-son communion to quite the opposite. I’ll stop here, at the risk of spoiling the story.

The river is central to Requiem. “Rivers sustain and nourish, yes, but they can also take life away,” Okuma-san says at one point. Recreating the river in pen and ink is a preoccupation for the adult Bin, as it was for the child. In the early pages of the book, he looks at the ice breaking up on the river, wondering about “the way I’ll shape angular chunks of ice, the overwhelming greyness, a flash of wings to hover over speeding darkness while the river discharges its winter debris. I think of the Fraiser again, my childhood river, and a rush of images floods up so suddenly, I’m caught off balance.” Again, these memories are always there just beneath the surface for all Japanese- Canadians, ready to topple them at any moment.

I have only one small quibble. Very late in their relationship, Lena reveals to Bin that she once studied piano, and it turns out she knows a considerable amount of Beethoven. Since Okuma-san, who plays a vital role in Bin’s life, is a Beethoven expert, why has Lena never thought to mention this before? Her level of expertise, described in the scene that follows her revelation, thus functioned only as a clever literary device but not in service to the characters. It was the only time I reluctantly pulled out of the fictive dream.

With Requiem, Frances Itani has written an important and moving novel. You might not have heard this story before, but like Okuma-san’s music played out on a plank of wood, it is told with painful and quiet eloquence.

Amanda Holmes Duffy teaches writing at Northern Virginia Community College, and writes fiction. Her story “Scorched” appeared in the Spring 2012 Our Stories Literary Journal.

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