How do we solve a problem like Noriko?

January 15, 2010

Before I get started, the customary warning: this post contains spoilers. In fact, it contains epic, glaring, massive spoilers for both Romanitas and Rome Burning, so unless you’ve read both books, you should probably stop here.

I have spoken to fellow Romanitas fans who, upon encountering Noriko (or, more specifically, her marriage to Marcus Novius), threw their books against the wall. In my case, the reaction was slightly different. I felt a deep, deep sadness, not only for Marcus, but also for Noriko herself.

This is surprising, given that I am an epic, insane fan of the relationship between Marcus and Una, and Noriko gets in the way of this relationship. But I feel that McDougall’s handling of the messy, miserable, painful political marriage between Marcus and Noriko is so skillful, precisely because it takes into account the emotions and personalities of all involved.

The operative word here is ‘political’. Marcus is the heir of the Emperor of Rome. Noriko is the daughter of the Emperor of Nionia. Their two countries are, if not at war, certainly in a very tense situation, where any action could potentially be misconstrued as aggressive. There have been several attacks in Terranova and ‘Nionian Terranova’ – the two superpowers’ territories in what we know as America – and both sides are blaming the other for the violence. Marcus has come on behalf of Rome to the neutral territory of Sina to try to organise a way for the two powers to coexist peacefully. He seems to be making progress, and for a while it looks as if the peace parties on both sides will prevail.

Everyone’s forgotten Drusus, of course.

Back in Rome, Drusus manages to convince the Emperor that not only was he wholly innocent of a vicious attack on Una, but also that he was innocent of any violence towards Marcus’ parents and Marcus himself. He manages to manipulate his way back into the Emperor’s good graces, and to discredit Marcus and the circle around him – Varius, Una and Sulien. Suddenly, Marcus finds himself under attack by the Roman state. In a split second, he makes the decision to trust the Nionians with Una and Varius (to prevent them from being captured by Rome and certainly harmed). Put it this way. He owes the Nionians a huge favour.

On Noriko’s part, she’s been brought up to know that she would make a political marriage, potentially with someone to whom she feels no connection. And she’s no innocent. She was brought to Sina with the intention of being married to Marcus, and, rather than blindly submit to her fate, spies on him and familiarises herself with the political situation.

This doesn’t mean that either of them had to go ahead and get married. But in Rome Burning, McDougall brilliantly uses the ‘problem’ of Noriko to demonstrate the development of Marcus’ character. One thing that is very hard to deal with as a reader sympathetic to Marcus is his decreasing idealism and increasing ability to compromise on things which he previously would’ve considered intolerable. He frees the slaves working in the Imperial house, but doesn’t abolish slavery. He justifies decisions like that with the need to make change gradually, much to the horror of people who knew him as an idealistic teenager, like Una. With the case of Noriko, Marcus weighs up the decision as he would any other political conundrum: will the benefit of the marriage outweigh the personal costs to himself?

The really awful thing about the marriage is that although it’s a political success, it’s a personal disaster for all involved. Una, who refuses to be Marcus’ mistress, leads a grief-filled existence apart from all her former friends. Marcus himself resents Noriko for not being Una, and for the fact that he felt compelled to marry her to avert disaster. Noriko, despite her low expectations, is miserable married to Marcus, knowing that she doesn’t have his love (she is aware of Una, and in fact had several conversations with her before marrying Marcus) or even his attention in any sense. In fact, she’s so unhappy she even finds herself drawn to Drusus (despite Una’s warning to stay the hell away if she values her life), perhaps sensing that misery loves company.

The story of Marcus, Una and Noriko is odd, almost folkloric or premodern in its sensibilities. Folktales (in particular those from Japan, oddly enough) and premodern literature abound with stories of (passionate, emotional) people struggling to put duty before love. There is a tension, perfectly teased out, between the personal and the political, and it is articulated very well in Rome Burning. In this unhappy trio we can see the distress caused when any three thinking – and in particular, intensely self-aware, introverted – people are forced by their intelligence to conclude that the situation that makes them miserable will make everyone else happy, safe and much better off. It’s heartbreaking to read, and I’m intrigued to know what happens next.

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