Ground Zero, Nagasaki

Ground Zero Nagasaki

Title: Ground Zero, Nagasaki
Japanese Title: 爆心 (Bakushin)
Author: Seirai Yūichi (青来 有一)
Translator: Paul Warham
Publication Year: 2014 (America); 2006 (Japan)
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Pages: 182

Although Seirai is a relative newcomer to the Japanese literary scene, having won the Akutagawa Prize for his story collection Seisui (Holy Water) in 2001, he was born in 1958 and was 47 years old when Ground Zero, Nagasaki was first published in November 2006. Although its stories are all set in contemporary Japan, Ground Zero, Nagasaki is deeply engaged with themes of personal and historical legacy.

Each of the six stories in this collection is about the physical and emotional damage suffered by Christians living in Nagasaki in the wake of the atomic bombing. The memory of the atomic bomb is extremely subtle in most of the stories, but it’s never completely absent. Even more powerful than any real or imagined trauma generated by the bomb, however, are the moral dictates of Christianity, which demands that its adherents bear witness to suffering.

The second story, “Stone,” is narrated from the perspective of the brother of a Diet member who is being forced to resign from office because he hired his girlfriend as his secretary. While his brother is giving a talk to local business association at a hotel in Nagasaki, the narrator, a 45-year-old man who calls himself “Adam,” waits in the lobby, where he is approached by a female journalist named Shirotani. Adam is on the autism spectrum, and his conversation with Shirotani is almost frustratingly elliptic.

It gradually becomes clear that Adam’s mother is dying. She has sent Adam to intercept his brother in order to ask that the politician care for him, as he can’t live by himself. Shirotani, who has a brother like Adam, is sympathetic, but the author does not allow this story to become sentimental. Instead, the reader is hit with the full force of Adam’s sexual attraction as he fantasizes about the journalist: “If she wouldn’t marry me, at least I could carry her smell around with me. I would bury my face in her panties and inhale her woman’s scent to my heart’s content” (33). Adam’s mother has punished him for such thoughts in the past, asking him how he could dare to entertain such un-Christian notions “‘after our ancestors went to the stake with pure thoughts and prayers on their lips'” (32).

Adam’s brother Kutani is caught in a the grips of a similar moral vise. He entered politics for the most noble of reasons: to ensure that a doctrine of peace was represented at the highest levels of the Japanese government. The woman with whom he has cheated on his wife had come to him looking for a job after her husband’s family cast her out with her newborn son, who was born severely handicapped. Kutani explains to Adam that he initially wanted to help her as he wants to help all of his constituents, but that he couldn’t help falling in love with her. He says: “‘As long as I had her in my arms, nothing else mattered. Even if war had broken out and nuclear bombs were exploding all over the world, I probably wouldn’t have cared'” (41). His adherence to Christian doctrine, which has guided him along his path as a politician, allows no leeway for his identity as an individual. His affair with his secretary is merely an indication of a deeper emotional dissonance that has also estranged him from his mother and brother, who need him to be a person instead of a politician.

As Kutani struggles with his conscience in the penthouse suite of the hotel where he will offer his resignation, his brother is overwhelmed by feelings he doesn’t understand. After Adam leaves the hotel, he is afraid that his body will turn to stone in response to the emotional overload as it has in earlier catatonic episodes triggered by stressful situations. The story ends with Adam begging God to not leave him alone without a family and without ever having experienced intimacy, his longing for comfort inseparable from his sexual desire.

Another story that I found especially trenchant is “Shells,” which is also told from the perspective of a highly unreliable narrator. Six months ago, the narrator’s daughter Sayaka suddenly came down with a fever and ended up dying of a brain hemorrhage. Since then, he has become convinced that the ocean has been rising during the night, covering entire sections of the city and leaving behind cowrie shells and other assorted sea creatures in his highrise apartment. His delusions became so powerful and persistent that his wife has left him and his brother has placed him under outpatient psychiatric care.

While walking in his neighborhood one day, the narrator encounters an old man named Nagai who tells him that his late sister used to be friends of a sort with Sayaka. His sister had become senile, and the narrator’s daughter was the only one who would listen to her rambling stories. The narrator, overcome with gratitude, invites Nagai back to his apartment, where the old man tells him that his sister spent her entire life trying to forget the day of the atomic bomb, when she was forced to leave her siblings behind in a burning house as she fled with her mother. Nagai’s sister had once spoken to him about the sea of flames engulfing the city, saying, “‘I wish the sea would wash over it all,'” suggesting that she wished her memories would be washed away as well (146).

The narrator, who has his own fantasies of the sea, feels a connection with this woman, but he is terrified of losing his memories, specifically his memories of his daughter and the love he felt for her, which he describes as “the best and brightest, the truest feeling I have ever had” (117). He realizes that the shells that the ocean leaves behind for him every evening after the flood recedes are akin to physical manifestations of his memories, but this insight does not weaken his conviction that the city of Nagasaki sleeps under the waves every night. He tries to convince Nagai that his visions are real but fails. The story ends with his understanding that the saltwater coming in from the bay is not a purifying force like the Biblical deluge but rather indicative of a spiritual wasteland in which God allows the innocent to suffer and perish.

Obviously Ground Zero, Nagasaki is not light reading, and I found that I had to let a week or two pass between the stories, each of which stayed with me long after I had closed the book. Reading Seirai feels a lot like reading Ōe Kenzaburō, yet his style is pellucid where Ōe’s is confoundedly literary. Seirai’s narrators are not philosopher poets citing The Great European Male Thinkers in casual conversation, but this does not make them any less complex and compelling; their proximity to the mundane and mimetic “realness” serves to emphasize how the lasting reverberations of Nagasaki’s violent history have touched the lives of even the most unassuming of its citizens.

I would be remiss if I did not conclude this review by stating that Ground Zero, Nagasaki has the best book design I have seen in a long time. A faded image of the black circle on the cover, an inverse of the red rising sun of the Japanese flag, is on every page of the book, a reminder that the proverbial gross insult to human dignity in the room can never be ignored. Each chapter begins with a progressive series of diagrams illustrating how to fold an origami crane, indicating that somewhere inside this terrible mess is hope. These illustrations suggest that the reader, by sharing the experiences of these stories with the author, is in effect performing a symbolic act of prayer resembling the dedication of a chain of paper cranes to the atomic bomb victims. Kudos to designer Julia Kushnirsky!

Is Ground Zero, Nagasaki worth the $35 asking price for the hardcover? Yes, I think so.

Will the stories in this book be of interest to anyone outside of the academic field of Japanese literary studies? Absolutely. It’s not easy to read this book, but that’s a major part of what allows it to dig so deeply into the reader.

Review copy provided by Columbia University Press.

Manazuru

Title: Manazuru
Japanese Title: 真鶴 (まなづる)
Author: Kawakami Hiromi (川上弘美)
Translator: Michael Emmerich
Publication Year: 2010 (America); 2006 (Japan)
Publisher: Counterpoint
Pages: 218

To return to the issue of sexism in literature (hopefully for the last time before laying it temporarily to rest), I think that, even as a book written by a man should not be automatically dismissed as sexist, so should a book written by a woman not be lauded simply because it was written by a woman. Take Manazuru, for instance. I love Kawakami Hiromi. For example, I think her 1998 collection of short stories, Kami-sama, was an imminently enjoyable exercise in magical realism, successful not only in its popular appeal but also in its critical reception. Her 1996 debut novel, Hebi o fumu, easily deserved all of the attention (like the Akutagawa Prize) that it won. Manazuru, on the other hand, is just plain boring.

The premise of the novel seems promising. Its protagonist is a writer named Kei, who lives in Tokyo with her mother and teenaged daughter. Her husband vanished twelve years ago, and now Kei finds herself inexplicably drawn to the seaside town of Manazuru. She is lead not only by her intuition but also by the ghost of a woman who occasionally appears and has conversations with her, albeit in a mostly antagonistic and cryptic way. Even though Kei is having an affair with a married man, she is still haunted by the memory of her husband, and she believes the key to his disappearance lies somewhere in Manazuru. Meanwhile, her daughter starts spending more and more time outside of the house, finally running away to meet someone whose identity she will not reveal. From this description, it would seem that several mysteries are afoot, each as compelling as the next.

Unfortunately, Manazuru is not the least bit interested in resolving any of these mysteries. What happened to Kei’s husband? We never find out. Who is the ghost that follows Kei around? We never find out. Who did the daughter run away with? We never find out. Answers are suggested in Kei’s garbled stream of consciousness narration, but then they are just as quickly dismissed. Did Kei kill her husband? Is the ghost that follows her around her husband’s dead lover? Did Kei’s daughter meet the ghost of her father? Maybe… But probably not.

In Manazuru’s defense, its plot is not its raison d’être. Its focus instead lies in the depiction of the mind of its protagonist in all of its complexity and confusion. Kei does not seem to know what she wants but is still searching for something, all the while immaculately and poetically detailing her experiences of drifting through life. Her thoughts give weight and meaning to the mundane, and she turns activities like riding the train into an art. Most of the novel is concerned with the details of her everyday life, like putting away her family’s winter clothes with her mother:

Handling so many different fabrics, heavy clothes, light clothes, makes my palms feel silky. I rise quietly, take the folded material from here to there. Bend down, lay it in a box. Fabric brushing against fabric, making the merest sound. Two women, one getting on in years, one starting to get on in years, pacing among the fabrics. With the tips of my fingers, I tear off the paper tag the cleaners stapled to the label last year. Replace the paper that lines the drawer, fold the old paper, throw it out. Straighten the new paper in the drawer, pile in the different materials, layer upon layer.

The same attention to style and detail is carried over into more dramatic moments, such as when Kei wanders around Manazuru, lead by a ghost in the middle of a storm. Such a narrative style drains such scenes of any sense of urgency, however, especially since Kei never seems to accomplish anything. The back of the book describes the novel as “a meditation on memory – a profound, precisely delineated exploration of the relationships between lovers and family members.” Indeed, if you’re into contemplative prose about the love and family lives of women, I suppose it doesn’t get much better than Manazuru.

Even if the front of the book didn’t declare it a “Recipient of the 2010 Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission Prize for the Translation of Japanese Literature,” I think I still might have gotten the feeling that this book was published because of its close proximity to the stereotype of Japanese women’s writing: meandering novellas about the feelings of women who pay more attention than is absolutely necessary to flowers, plants, and the changing seasons. Kawakami has written work that is playful, creative, and fiercely intelligent. I wonder, then, why such a very very serious and very very emotional and very very “literary” (in a very, very outdated sense of the word) book of hers is the first to appear in English translation. Michael Emmerich is a brilliant translator, as always; but, after his 2009 translation of Matsuura Rieko’s wonderfully subversive The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P, I feel that his talent has been somewhat wasted with a boring and rather vacuous book like Manazuru.

To return to the issue of fiction and gender, I was thinking about creating a new category for my reviews: “Women Writers.” However, reading Manazuru has convinced me that a writer should not be judged according to his or her gender; and, furthermore, that the reification of the gender of an author is not something I particularly wish to engage in and perpetuate. For the time being, then, I am going to hold off on the creation of this category and allow female writers to stand on equal ground with their male counterparts without being branded as “Women Writers” and having to bear all the cultural baggage that comes with the label.

Keritai Senaka

Keritai Senaka by Wataya Risa

Title: 蹴りたい背中
English Title: “The Back I’d Like To Kick”
Author: 綿矢りさ (Wataya Risa)
Publication Year: 2003 (Japan)
Pages: 140

Wataya Risa made waves in 2001 when she became the youngest writer to win the Bungei Prize (文藝賞), a prestigious award managed by the literary magazine Bungei. She won the award for her debut novel Install (インストール), written while she was a senior in high school. After graduating from high school, Wataya entered Waseda University and began work on her second novel, Keritai Senaka. This novel would win her the Akutagawa Prize (芥川賞), the single most prestigious literary award in Japan. At the age of nineteen, Wataya became the youngest author ever to receive this award.

So, what’s all the fuss about? In a market dominated by pop fad writers like Yoshimoto Banana and Yamada Amy, it’s easy to be skeptical. You’ll have to take my word for it, though, when I say that Wataya is the real deal. Her prose reflects the background and personality of her high school aged narrator while still managing to maintain a definite literary tone. Her descriptions of people and places are vivid and artistic, and her introspective examination of memory and interpersonal dynamics are sure to resonate with anyone who’s old and yet young enough to be able to look back on high school with both bitterness and nostalgia.

The novel’s plot centers around the lone wolf narrator Hachi, her changing relationship with her best friend Kinuyo, and her developing relationship with a strange boy named Ninagawa. Hachi and Kinuyo have just graduated from middle school, and Hachi is disappointed that Kinuyo has become popular with a new group of friends in high school. Left to her own devices, Hachi is drawn to Ninagawa, a fellow outcast who steadfastly refuses to have anything to do with other people. When Hachi mentions that she’s met the fashion model with whom Ninagawa is obsessed, he latches on to her, and she finds herself introduced to his strange otaku fantasy world, which ultimately provides a means for her to re-affirm her relationship with Kinuyo.

Although it’s debatable whose back Hachi wants to kick, the back that she does kick (twice) belongs to Ninagawa. Don’t let yourself think for one second, however, that this book is about a high school romance between the two. The somewhat twisted relationship between the them is exquisitely complicated and yet imminently understandable, even if you can’t quite put your finger on why. One of the main appeals of this novel, in fact, is the challenge of decoding Hachi’s feelings towards Ninagawa. Perhaps the other main appeal is trying to understand one’s own feelings, as the reader, concerning Hachi (and, by extension, oneself at her age).

Unfortunately, this novel has yet to be translated. For those of you studying Japanese, however, you will be pleased to find that Wataya’s prose is very accessible. The book can easily be finished in three or four sittings. If you’ve been looking for a book to serve as a gateway into Japanese literature, please allow me to recommend Keritai Senaka.