Yuko Tsushima: Of Dogs and Walls, trans. Geraldine Harcourt, Penguin Modern 43, 2018.
I’ve spent a very happy January in Japan (virtually), revisiting old favourites and making some new favourites. Above all, I seem to have fallen into a research black hole regarding the remarkable Tsushima family: father and daughter. I have reviewed a book of short stories by Tsushima Yuko and Dazai Osamu’s last novel. I am now delving in some academic research about Dazai and also some of his more autobiographical short stories.
When I heard that there are two further recently translated autobiographical short stories by Yuko Tsushima, I could not resist. These two were translated in 2018 (touchingly, by the much-missed translator to whom we owe most of Tsushima’s work available in English) and published in the tiny chapbook series of numbered Penguin Modern Classics. It contains two stories: Suifu – The Watery Realm and Inu to Hei ni tsuite – Of Dogs and Walls, and they are the most openly and painfully personal stories I have yet read by this author. They are decades apart – the first was published in 1982, when Tsushima was establishing herself as an author, while the second was published in 2014, two years before her death.
In the first story, Tsushima must have hoped that by taking on her father’s legacy head-on, she might be able to put it to rest. Both for herself and for the Japanese reading public, who continued to be obsessed by all things related to Dazai’s life and writings. She was probably also keen to establish her own reputation as a talented author, entirely separate from him.
She certainly achieved that in Japan, leaving behind a legacy of 35 novels and hundreds of short stories, many of them prize-winning. From the mid 1980s she moved away from the stories inspired by her own life as a single mother, and took on a wider subject matter, often writing about ecological matters or Japan as a colonial oppressor or marginalised people such as the Ainu or the plight of interracial children born from American soldier fathers and Japanese mothers after the war. Sadly, these later works have not yet been translated into English, which may give us a rather one-dimensional view of her writing. In fact, when I wrote my previous reviews about her work, I was not fully aware of the richness of her legacy.
‘The Watery Realm’ moves delicately and confidently, like water, between three generations, via a loop of folkloric and personal associations. First, we have the five-year-old boy who is saving up all his pocket money to buy a castle-shaped decoration for the aquarium. His mother the narrator is reminded of the Dragon Palace from the Urashimataroo story, wonders pragmatically if she can afford it when they don’t even have a proper aquarium or goldfish, and remembers her own chaotic childish thoughts when told that her father had drowned himself.
Finally, we have the narrator’s mother, the boy’s grandmother, who was left a young widow with three children and has always felt superstitious about Suijin, the Shinto Water God. Suijin is actually the generic name given to any kind of water spirits (which can manifest as fish, eels, snakes, dragons) to be found in the many, many bodies of water all around Japan. Some of them are benign (after all, they help irrigate the land), but there is always more than a hint of malice or danger about them. The most famous of these are the Kappa (half-human, half-frogs or turtles), who appear in many folk tales and in a novella by Akutagawa.
In Tsushima’s story, the woman’s struggle to cook, clean and raise children in a house with no running water makes her feel as though she is battling against gravity itself as well as the greedy, evil spirit of Suijin. There are moments when she wonders why humans have evolved into land animals at all:
Sometimes I thought what fools we humans are – it’s living on land that causes all these woes; if we need water so badly then we should just return to it… Then, one day, my husband did return to the water.’
The water spirit crows in triumph at the harm she has caused and continues to torture the woman, taunting her that she will never recover from the loss of her husband.
Grieve all you like… wail until your throat is on fire. You can’t escape water… There’s nothing else here. The place is awash. Your husband is water now. You are married to water. You will be deafened by its voice, shattered by its weight.
However, the woman is determined not to allow herself to be defeated by this prediction. As she remembers it, she has not allowed herself to become a burden on others, has done a good job of living independently and providing a good life and home environment for her children, even when their family is struck down by a second tragedy, the early death of the middle child. [Tsushima’s brother did indeed die in his early teens of a sudden fever.] At a family meal, however, when the five-year-old grandson innocently asks her why she is not as scary as his mother said she was, it turns out that what she is describing is not a world that her daughter recognises. The instinct for survival might have come at a price. This is how her daughter remembers things:
A mother who hated and feared the outside world as she held her children tight, and who faced that world with disdain, adamant that no one was going to look down on her: that’s who raised me. I grew up tutored in what happened if you trusted outsiders, taught that solitude was the only weapon of defence.
Just like her son’s longing for the Dragon Palace in the fish tank, which doesn’t quite live up to expectations, so the narrator see her mother yearning to cast a beautiful sheen on their past. All the unspoken resentments and fears between mother and daughter quiver in the air between them… but it is too late to address them. I cannot help but wonder how the author’s mother reacted to this story (she was still alive when it was published and may have seen too many parallels to her own life in it).
This story is full of raw emotion and becomes all the more poignant when you know that Tsushima’s son, who did indeed have a passion for aquariums and keeping fish, died a couple of years after this story was published, drowning in his bathtub while his mother was in the other room.
This third family tragedy might have given her a deeper understanding of her mother’s suffering and determination to keep going. In the later story, Of Dogs and Walls, the mother-daughter relationship is calmer, although still unknowable and tense. The story is focused on the sudden loss of the narrator’s brother, who was a couple of years older than her, but whom she babied and protected, because he had a developmental disability. However, the emotions in this story are kept on a tight leash. The grief is described and possibly partly attenuated by listing the dogs her mother kept in the yard, while the walls are perhaps the symbols of the protective scaffolding we try to erect around ourselves. Yet, for a brief moment in the story, a gate was opened in the walls separating their house from that of their neighbours’. Could the author be telling us that these fleeting moments of connection, of comfort, are all that we can expect in life?
Tshushima’s surviving child is a playwright, writing under the name Ishihara Nen. When reading this outstanding essay about her mother and her childhood, I was suddenly struck how similar her sentiments are to those of the narrator in The Watery Realm, how she feared her mother and struggled to understand and cope with her anger (directed at other people rather than at her, thank goodness, unlike in the story). Tsushima did not try to gloss over her life and rewrite it in a rosy fictional light. Nor, despite the unflinching honesty of her descriptions of single motherhood, did she become overwhelmed by self-hatred and nihilism like her father. Instead, she learnt to come to terms with her own grief and anger by listening and giving voice to others who had been struck by personal or collective tragedy. I might be reaching here, but it seems to me that she finally triumphed over her family’s painful legacy.
I have dug deep into Tsushima’s life, and yet all this is not at all necessary to read and appreciate her work. When I read Territory of Light two years ago, I knew nothing at all about all this, and yet it spoke to me with a great immediacy. So I will end with Ishihara’s words about just how much of her mother’s work is ‘confessional’.
When I was born into this world, my mother was already a novelist. In her writings, a character who it seemed could only be my mother lived with children who seemed like me and my younger brother, in the same town where we lived. Thanks to that, until I was almost fully grown I thought my mother’s early works were all about our household exactly as it was. Even now, looking at the pieces written when I was little, if you were to ask me how much of it is true I couldn’t possibly tell you. All of it comes across as real, and then again it doesn’t.Ishihara Nen: People’s Voices, Mother’s Song