Comments on The Persimmon Tree
Florence is a city of penises. They dangle from marble and masonry by the dozens. It’s also a city of power and power struggles. Florence’s paintings present the numerous long running wars the city had with such nearby cities as Sienna and Pisa. Tucked in the corners of countless palaces and churches hangs the Medici family crest, reminding us of the absolute power that family held over generations. Though it may have been christened ‘city of flowers’, this town reminds us of a time when patriarchy in all its tough and murderous glory was celebrated.
The Persimmon Tree by Bryce Courtney is one of the worst-written published novels I’ve ever read, but it may be appropriate that in a city with more visible penises than anywhere else, I read a novel whose central character is more or less an 18-year-old’s penis. I started reading this novel because it concerns Dutch colonialists in Indonesia during the second world war. My grandparents on my mother’s side were living in Indonesia for some years and became Japanese prisoners of war. Though books have been written, and movies made about the experience of British trapped in Indonesia at that time, I haven’t been able to find anything written in English about the Dutch experience. Unfortunately the novel dealt with this only peripherally. The “hero” was British. He fell in love with a mixed race girl, product of a “relationship” between a young Indonesian girl and a married Dutch man. Whether she is the product of rape is unclear, but when the mother died, the family deposited the baby with the father. In this novel the boy, Nicholas, remains steadfastly in love over a period of years with the girl, Anna, despite the fact that they are separated by the war. He joins the British Army, she’s captured and both protected and required to provide stylized sadistic sexual practices for a Japanese officer. During the course of these years, Nicholas has several affairs with other women. Despite the fact that his groin is constantly “swelling”, these affairs are not just about sex. They’re growth opportunities! When Anna develops a bond with the officer who protects her and keeps her from being imprisoned in the army brothel, like the Dutch women, the author describes it as an example of Stockholm Syndrome. Still, the narrator says some insightful things. He speaks of the capacity of humans to adapt to almost any situation and see it as normal and says it is the reason we have found ourselves the dominant creatures on earth. For instance, there were some amongst the emaciated near-skeletons that emerged from the Japanese prisoner-of-war camps in Burma who exhibited mixed feelings at the final Allied victory: “Many were thrown into a state of confused apathy ringed with anger and a fear of the unknown. This was because survival had become a routine, a skill acquired by those who were strong enough to survive. … It seems a contradiction that this capacity to adapt and adopt also depends on rigid adherence to routine acts, to maintaining regular habits that we have acquired which we believe keep us alive. “ I think this is exactly right. We become conditioned, or constructed, as we adapt, and then we become our conditioning. But then the narrator continues: “It was no different for Anna. She first learned to adapt and then to adopt, learning the language of her captor, his habits, routines, pleasures and predilections, all in order to survive and to maintain her chastity.” He seems to feel a need to make excuses for the affection she began to feel for her Japanese officer, as though his interest in her mind, his lack of interest in violating her, his kindness and protection, are not sufficient for a psychologically healthy person to respond. I wonder if the author has considered that these behaviours he describes have been the behaviours of countless women in history who have been forced, sold or given away in marriage. Later, the narrator brings in the wisdom of Hongzhi Zhengjue in a very strange context. Anna’s protector has been ordered back to Japan, leaving Anna at the mercy of a much more ruthless Japanese officer. He tells her, when left with no choices, “Withdraw now from the pounding and waving of your ingrained ideas. If you want to be rid of this invisible turmoil, you must sit through it and let go of everything.” He then forcibly gets her addicted to heroin and then uses her addiction to get her to willingly submit to his rape in exchange for drugs. In fact, as we see, she loses her “self” as a result of this supremely manipulative cruelty. She becomes re-constructed as a prostitute/addict who is filled with self-blame and self-loathing. Never mind, Nicholas’ love will reclaim her from this false self. ——-