I can never stray too far from Japanese literature, even though it’s no longer January in Japan. This book, which is made up of two separate long short stories or novellas, was published by Europa Editions earlier this month and is translated by Australian academic and translator Haydn Trowell. I was lucky enough to receive an ARC (and to be only a week or two late in my reviewing of it).
The first novella Touring the Land of the Dead won the Akutagawa Prize in 2012 and, back then, Glynne Walley at the University of Oregon commented that it could be translated as ‘A Tour of Hell’ or ‘Running Around in the Afterlife’ or even ‘The Dark Land and Its Rounds’. [The wide range of possibilities gives you an idea of why I gave up ever translating from Japanese.] The second novella Ninety-Nine Kisses was a sort of bonus at the time, to make the entry book-length, and Walley is possibly the only reader other than me who preferred it to the prize-winning one. Most readers were repulsed by the strong hints of incest in the second story, but for this Shirley Jackson fan, it had more of the slightly sinister insider vs. outsider vibe of We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
Anyway, back to the first novella, with a clever title that sounds appropriate for the spa holiday that our protagonist Natsuko undertakes with her husband, but also refers to that well-known maxim that ‘Hell is other people’ – in this case, Natsuko’s family.
You poor thing, her mother would say. You poor, poor thing, working so hard in place of your husband at that drab job of yours… Even though what was really deserving of pity were those hours spent in that restaurant looking at that tonguesole meuniere, that evening spent together with someone who didn’t understand her at all, in that gorgeous world in which she didn’t belong.
Not to put too fine a point on it, Natsuko’s mother and brother are lazy spongers, with a breathtaking sense of entitlement, who have never been able to recover from their loss of fortune and status. They have no qualms about borrowing money from Natsuko, the only member of the family actually working, while berating or faux-pitying her constantly. Natsuko’s husband, Taichi, was struck with a debilitating illness (something like MS, although it is never named) soon after their wedding, so she has been the one supporting her household on her part-time wages. She takes him on this very brief holiday because the hotel that her family used to consider the height of luxury now offers affordable spa breaks. The place of course triggers all sorts of memories, mainly of how abominably her family treated her, and she ends up considerably more appreciative of her husband, who at first seems naive, but ultimately proves himself to be simply not bitter and therefore quite wise.
Although Natsuko resents her mother and brother from the very start of the story, the novella represents a journey towards Zen wisdom and acceptance. The story ends on an upbeat note as Taichi finally gets an electric wheelchair and becomes more mobile. But Natsuko herself learns to let go of resentments, let go of caring what her family thinks and does, but without becoming numb, like she does earlier in the book, and giving up all hope:
She had already given up on everything. And she never thought too deeply about why such unreasonableness, such unfairness, such unhappiness always befell her. She lived her life trying to think about it all as little as possible. Because it wasn’t the kind of thing you could easily look at, not directly. And if, by chance, she were to glance at it, she knew it would leave an unhealthy, fatal wound…
The style in this story is quite pared down, the language simple and everyday, almost dull. By way of contrast, the second story is more baroque, more ornate, at times lyrical, a bit of a fever-dream from the youngest of four sisters, who, together with their mother, have created a powerful little matriarchy in their house in Shitamachi. Desite their little squabbles, they are a tight-knit unit (the youngest sister is so smitten by the beauty of her older sisters that she expresses rather explicity sexual longings towards them, as mentioned earlier on – but ambiguously enough that it can be brushed off as merely a bit of an unhealthy obsession with the family nest). At least, until a young man called S makes his appearance – an outsider to their area and clearly buying into all of the reputation of Shitamachi.
This is the aspect of the story that I found most interesting, because Tokyo’s Shitamachi was traditionally the poorer, flat area around the Sumida river, where fishermen, tradesmen, craftsmen lived and where the entertainment and red-light district were situated. It was also a melting pot of Edo culture, kabuki artists, sumo wrestlers, with Saikaku Ihara describing the ‘floating world’ in words, and Utamaro in pictures. Later, the area featured strong women writers and activists such as Higuchi Ichiyo and Hiratsuka Raicho. Clearly, S is attracted to the area for its reputation and a nostalgia for the past; he somehow expects the four sisters to live up to his false image of the place. Instead, they are unusual for their area and backgroudn. Their mother has raised them on French nouvelle vague films and frank discussions about their bodies and sex. Two of the sisters might be considered old maids by Japanese standards (around the age of thirty), but they are bold about expressing their desires, at least to each other.
The outsider is dangerous – he might upset their precarious balance. The narrator, who reminds me very much of Merricat in Shirley Jackson’s novel, with an equally slippery manner that makes you question how much to believe her, seems to be the only one to be fully aware of what this intrustion might mean:
They’re all my sisters. We were all one body to begin with. But then we were born, cut away from each other one by one. That’s why I want him to stop, this S – to stop planting these seeds of love inside them. We don’t need all that… We’re a perfect whole. Like Adam before Eve. Or like a hermaphrodite.
I find it intriguing and almost perplexing that, despite the sexism that women experience in Japan (far more overtly than in the English-speaking world, although clearly that doesn’t mean there is less of it here, as recent events have shown), contemporary Japanese women writers, such as Kawakami Mieko or Misumi Kubo, seem to be at the forefront of candour about their bodies, their sexuality, their darker impulses. As if to catch up with those generations of Japanese male writers holding forth quite explicitly on these topics for well over a century. Or, perhaps, because they cannot always voice those thoughts in public without being judged, they choose to do so via their fiction. Many of them write within the Japanese tradition but also bring in plenty of Western references, thereby building hybrid, occasionally oddly-shaped constructions. Not all of them are successful, but they are always interesting to read.
I have to admit I love this current publishing hunger for Japanese women authors and can only hope that it will last for a long, long time. You can find another review for this on Tony’s site, as he also shares my passion for Japanese literature. I think if Tony and I ever met in real life – preferably somewhere in Japan – we would probably never stop talking!