Portraits of Lost Pasts

Reviewed by Kelly Baron

Larissa Lai’s The Lost Century and Anne Lazurko’s What Is Written on the Tongue take, as their fundamental inquiries, what it means to tell histories of violence that are frequently forgotten. The Lost Century considers Hong Kong during the interwar and World War II period, as told from one family member to another on the day of the 1997 handover; What Is Written on the Tongue depicts the post-World War II Dutch colonization of the East Indonesian Island of Java, interspersed with diary entries covering the Nazi occupation of Holland.


The Lost Century focuses on the lives of Emily and Violet, two young women living in Hong Kong during the outset of World War II. Emily is a beautiful, charismatic singer; Violet is bookish and routinely described as ugly in comparison to her sister. Although Violet is the younger of the sisters, she is more sensible than Emily, and takes a caregiver approach to their sibling relationship. Emily marries Tak-Wing, the love of her youthful life but the son of her father’s enemy, without her father’s consent. Violet then has to negotiate a cease-fire between Emily and Violet’s father and Tak-Wing’s parents, resulting in Emily marrying Tak-Wing three times: first, a legal ceremony with Violet in attendance; second, a Western ceremony hosted by the Hong Kong Cricket Club, where Tak-Wing is a star; and third, a traditional Chinese ceremony to appease Emily and Violet’s father. The result is a Romeo and Juliet-esque love story, which of course would not be complete without tragedy. But the tragedy in this novel is both personal and structural: Emily is raped by a senior member of the Kempeitai, Japan’s secret police service, during the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong in 1941. Tak-Wing blames Emily, believing that she had some ability to prevent the rape, and becomes physically abusive. Violet, once again, has to save her older sister.


Although the novel is titled The Lost Century, and has the narrative framing of Violet’s grandniece, Ophelia, asking her about Emily’s life during the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China in 1997, the bulk of the plot is centered immediately before and during World War II. This is, effectively, a World War II novel that considers the violence of the war outside of Europe, focusing on the effects of British colonialism and Japanese fascism in Hong Kong. While the narrative framing provides few details of the handover, it does focus on the importance of history. Violet tells Ophelia, at the beginning of her story, that “all pasts are only dreams, unless you have a real way of making them present” (22). Lai’s novel, a detailed and beautifully written account of a side of World War II frequently forgotten, makes Hong Kong’s pasts—as a British colony, as an occupied Japanese territory—present for the readers through a deeply affective reading experience.


Anne Lazurko’s What Is Written on the Tongue takes up similar thematic concerns, and continues Lai’s ethical inquiry into making the past become present. What Is Written on the Tongue tells the story of Sam, a twenty-year-old Dutch man who is conscripted into the Dutch army immediately at the end of World War II to help regain control of the Indonesian island of Java, a Dutch colony that was occupied by the Japanese during the war. In this, the books work as mirrors; like The Lost Century, the focus of Lazurko’s novel is a former colony that is occupied by the Japanese during World War II. But Lazurko’s focus is on the continued colonization of Java by the Dutch after the end of World War II, a story she tells through the character of Sam. Sam’s journals recount his enslavement in a Nazi labour camp during World War II, and his past experiences make his reflections on his role in Java believable. Upon conscription, he is told that his role is to “restore law and order and get things back to normal as the Brits withdrew” (10). But he quickly realizes that his position is one of plunder, not protection; he knows that the Dutch army is in Java to “reclaim it—tea and sugar and rubber, the oil refineries and coal mines—so the colony can provide Holland a means of recovery from the Nazi occupation” (10). Protection is afforded to Dutch assets, not to Javanese locals; Sam is horrified, initially, that a fellow soldier treats every local as though they belong to the local guerilla resistance, and quickly draws comparisons between his role in Java and that of the Nazis (112). Lazurko’s novel is not a simple war story; it reads as an ethical engagement in what it means to occupy and colonize, as told through the view of a young soldier who was barely home from a Nazi labour camp before being conscripted and sent to Indonesia.


What Is Written on the Tongue, like The Lost Century, is concerned about the need to share forgotten histories of World War II. Sam matures in this ethically charged environment and his redemption comes in the form of writing. His father sends him a notebook for him to record his experiences in Indonesia, and as Sam is recovering from a mysterious fever, he “thinks of what he might write about this new war” (302). He ends the novel with a meditation on storytelling:


Stories are like the stone reliefs at Borobudur, the grand sweep of history in the background, individual lives woven through the narrative to shed light on the truth; first the recognition and then the reckoning. And then, finally, the moving forward. He will wait to make these new words into stories, wait until he can see his time in Indonesia from a distance. Wait until he is strong enough for that kind of honesty. (302)


Sam’s reflection on writing down his experiences in Indonesia could easily be a monologue from Violet to Ophelia. Both The Lost Century and What Is Written on the Tongue depict a clear, ethical engagement with what it means to tell forgotten elements of history and how those histories should be told.

This review “Portraits of Lost Pasts” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 30 Aug. 2023. Web.

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