14 July 2012

Challenged and frustrated by an uncomfortable read ~

I just finished reading Saving Fish from Drowning by Amy Tan. She is one of those authors that several friends have mentioned, saying, "You've got to read one of her books," and so when I saw this one, I was a little intrigued by the title and picked it up off the book exchange rack at the Rec Center.

There are two "notes" at the beginning of the book - and they give important insight into the themes throughout the book:
  1. "The evil that is in the world almost always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding." (Albert Camus)
  2. "A pious man explained to his followers: "It is evil to take lives and noble to save them. Each day I pledge to save a hundred lives. I drop my net in the lake and scoop out a hundred fishes. I place the fishes on the bank, where they flop and twirl. 'Don't be scared,' I tell those fishes. 'I am saving you from drowning.' Soon enough, the fishes grow calm and lie still. Yet, sad to say, I am always too late. The fishes expire. And because it is evil to waste anything, I take those dead fishes to market and I sell them for a good price. With the money I receive, I buy more nets so I can save more fishes." (Anonymous)

In the book, a group of tourists are on an excursion to see Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). It is quite the eclectic group, all friends of the now deceased tour leader - who accompanies them in spirit and serves as the narrator and color commentator, at times. One of the group members is horrified as she watches fishermen fishing - piling fish on the shore and leaving them there to slowly suffocate. The following conversation ensues: 

"I thought this was a buddhist country," Heidi said. "I thought they didn't kill animals...."

"The butchers and the fishermen are usually not Buddhist," Walter said. "But even if they are, they approach their fishing with reverence. They scoop up the fish and bring them to the shore. They say they are saving fish from drowning. Unfortunately..." He looked downward, like a penitent. "...the fish do not recover."

Saving fish from drowning? Dwight and Harray looked at each other and guffawed. Was he joking?

Heidi was unable to speak. Did these people actually believe they were doing a good deed? Why, they had no intention of saving anything! Look at those fish. They were gasping for oxygen, and the sellers who squatted nearby, smokin their cheroots, hardly possessed the caring demeanor of emergency doctors or hospice workers. "It's horrible," she said at last. "It's worse than if they just killed them outright rather than ustifying it as an act of kindness." (p. 162)
The animal expert (a vet) who is a part of the group is then asked a bit later, after he has explained how fish breath in water:

"If they can take oxygen from water, why can't their gills process it from air?"

...Harry gladly explained: "Their gills are like two silky-thin arches. They're suspended wide open in water, like double sails on a boat. Out of water, the arches collapse like a plastic baggie and press against each other, sealing them off so no air gets in. The fish suffocate."

Vera gae out a snort. "So there is absolutely no way someone can sincerely say they are saving fish from drowning."

And Harry replied: "No. They are drowning on land."

"Well, what about chickens?" Vera mused, gesturing toward a cage of chicks. "What benevolent action will do them in? Will they be receiving yoga lessons when their necks are accidently broken?" (p. 164)
This conversation has hung with me - and it has me asking the question: How often do we... do I... engage in some behavior or action and then try and justify it, to both myself and to others, with semantic games? Why do we... I... do it? And then there is the corollary: Why is it  we're... I'm... often more successful in fooling ourselves... myself... than I am others?

This theme shows up repeatedly throughout the book - hence the title of the book. And that has me thinking.... a lot....

What do you think?

PS Please do not consider this post as my recommendation to read this book. Based on several reviews I've read after the fact, it seems a general consensus that this is not a best Amy Tan effort. It contained many challenging thoughts, provided a sometimes hilarious perspective of what many Americans look like as they travel abroad, the silliness of overbearing concern for animal life while ignoring real human suffering all around, revealed many assumptions prevalent in the post-modern worldview of today, and gave a very tongue-in-cheek yet piercing assessment of individual, differing colored perceptions of the same events and circumstances affecting several different people. Yet at the same time, I found the book frustrating because of explicit and/or crude parts and language that I had to skip over, a lackadaisical  and accepting, condoning attitude toward sinful behavior, tons of stereotype, a lack of real characters with whom I could identify and particularly, a prevaling obsession with self-importance. If you want further information than this, please drop me an email and I'll get back to you.

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