A genial tale of self-assertion by an Okinawan house-husband

Most of the fiction from Okinawa I have read deals either with relations with US military personnel or with discrimination against Okinawans by Japanese from the northern archipelago. “Fortunes by the Sea” (Kahô wa umi kara), the 1998 novella by Eiki Matayoshi, the 1995 winner of the Akutagawa Prize has an entirely intraethnic focus. The protagonist Kazuhisa is a fifth son who is married out, that is takes on the patronym of his wife and is responsible with carrying on the line of his wife(‘s father).

As on Taiwan, there is something humiliating about being annexed by another lineage. This is exacerbated in Kazuhisa’s case in that despite the substantial income the family receives from renting land to the US, both his wife and her father continue to work, while Kazuhisa, a college graduate, performs domestic labor (cooking, laundry) and is a literal lay-about, dreaming under an oracle tree.

He takes to going fishing after his wife and father are asleep and meets a pair of sisters from the Okinawan mainland. They run a tavern and are professionals at drawing out and making men comfortable. Their pleasant encounter (consuming a taman [snakehead] he caught) inspires him to go visit them. Having no money beyond the household allowance doled out to him and for which he must account, he decides to steal a goat to take and exchange for drinks.

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He is prone to seasickness, so the voyage across the straits is a major undertaking beyond his theft and staying out all night. The expedition surprises his father-in-law and increases Kazuhisa’s status at home. Whether he will sire an heir on his skititsh, sex-phobic wife (who arranges to spend every night at meetings of voluntary associations, some of which she heads) remains to be seen at the end of the genial, mock-heroic tale.

The translation by David Fahy occupies the last 71 pages of Southern Exposure: Modern Japanese Literature from Okinawa.

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

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Sisterhood with no sibling rivalries

 

Though running 128 minutes Koreeda Hirokazu’s 2015 adaptation of a manga as海街diary (Umimachi Diary, or Seaside-town diary”), released in English as “Our Little Sister” seems slight to me. Many find it “heart-warming,” I find it sentimental in a Kinoshita tradition. Three sisters: 29-year-old Sachi (Ayase Haruka), 22-year-old Yoshino a (Nagasawa Masami) and 19-year-old Chika (Kaho) live in a large house in Kamakura (southeast of Tokyo). News comes that their father, whom they have not seen in 15 years, has died. They go to the funeral, where their father’s third wife claims to have nursed their father through his final illness.

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They intuit that the serious-looking 14-year-old Asano Suzu (Hirose Suzu) was the one who cared for their father. Sachi invites Suzu to come and live with them rather than stay with her/their stepmother. Suzu was the offspring of the woman with whom their father decamped, his second wife.

Suzu is keenly aware that she is a very visible reminder of their common father abandoning his first wife and their three daughters. She is especially aware of her negative connections for the mother of the three older females, who also abandoned her three daughters and drops in. Sachi, who was left to raise her younger two sisters, is very antagonistic to her mother, though the immature woman tries to make Suzu comfortable in her presence.

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Though the sisters experience frustration in their own love lives, there is no antagonism or even tension between any of them, and they all dote on Suzu. Suzu makes the coeducational soccer team and hangs out with one of the male players and is dutiful and grateful at her new home. Tensions are mostly between generations not between siblings (and the novel half-sibling who is something of a pet, but also arguably more mature than Chika).

Ayase Haruka, who strikes me as the most beautiful of the women in the cast, is self-sacrificing in the manner of Takamine Hideko in 1950s family dramas made by Ozu and Kinoshita. The offspring are old enough to make money in contrast to the young children huddling together in Koreeda’s 2004 “Nobody Knows,” which lessens the drama and the poignancy. Suzu not only can go to school, but fits in readily. Still, the actresses (including three of the older generation) are very good in what seems like a very gentle, muted, episodic sitcom that mostly takes place in the family house‑though when it does go out, things are beautifully photographed by Mikya Takimoto, who also shot “Like Father, Like Son” for Koreeda.

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Medoruma Shun’s Akutagawa Prize-winning novella “Droplets”

Medoruma Shun won the Akutagawa Prize in 1997 for Suiteki (水滴 A Drop Of Water, translated by Michael Molasky as “Droplets“). Owing perhaps a little to Kafkza’s “Metamorphosis,” it is a work of Okinawan “magical realism.” Fifty years after the epic carnage of the Battle of Okinawa, a veteran named Tokushô wakes up one morning unable to move or speak with his right shin grotesquely bloated, resembling a gourd melon (tôgan). His hard-working wife Ushi is frustrated that she will have to do all the work in the fields. Convinced that villagers are experimented on in university hospitals, she refuses to allow their physician to have Tokushô admitted to one.

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The liquid that drips out between the big toe and its neighbor is analyzed as ordinary water. Every night ghosts (I use the word since they can go through walls, they are not labeled anything in the English translation) who were left to die in a cave by Tokushô and other wounded but ambulatory soldiers come and drink the droplets from his foot. His generalized survivor guilt it concentrated on Ishimine, a comrade from the same area of Okinawa to whom Tokushô promised to bring water, but didn’t. Ishimine’s ghost does not speak, but Tokushô feels forgiven before the swelling subsides and he is able to move and speak again.

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POW on Okinawa, 1945 (in public domain)

Tokushô’s cousin, Seiyû, who strikes me as a sort of minor league Milo Minderbender, discovers that the drippings can stimulate the growth of hair and also cure impotency and, unbeknownst to Tokushô or Ushi, makes a small fortune selling bottles of the drippings. The effects prove to be only temporary and the hustler is set upon by those who bought “miracle water” from him.

 

In common with Medoruma’s masterful novel In the Woods of Memory (first published in Japanese in 2009, just published in English), “Droplets” shows the agonies of 1945 still festering half a century later and also shows rural Okinawans as being far from noble or innocent (though those in “Droplets” do not behave as badly as the bullies and serial rapists of Woods). I find the characters less developed (though taking up equivalent space on pages) in “Droplets,” and the novella more interesting as phenomenon than as literature. I did not find it “engaging,” as Akutagawa jude Kôno Taeko did.

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Blaming the victim magnifies the trauma of gang rape

The first novel by Okinawan writer and activist Medoruma Shun, In the Woods of Memory (Me no okay no mori, more literally “I’m not OK, nor dead”, 2009) to be translated into English, is a masterpiece, albeit one to make Okinawan or American readers (or probably any kind!) uncomfortable. It has some resonances with Kurosawa’s 1950 masterpiece “Rashômon” and its source “Yabu no naka” (In a Grove) by Akutagawa Ryūnosuke. (Medoruma won the 1997 Akutagawa prize, btw) in that the work centers on a rape in a woods and multiple perspectives.

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Medoruma’s novel (based on a story his grandmother told him about a rape by US soldiers of an Okinawan girl in northern Okinawa) is more a mosaic with nine different protagonists (not all narrators) from 1945 and 2005, rather than the puzzle of accounts by unreliable, self-serving narrators of “Rashômon.” It also differs in that there are rapists (plural, and they also raped other villagers) and that they are alien (American). There is indirect testimony from one of the rapists, but not from the victim (the raped woman in “Rashômon” presents her account), Sayoko.

Sayoko was with some younger girls gathering food on a beach across from a recently constructed US pier. Such soldiers of the Japanese Imperial Army who had not retreated to the south of Okinawa were prisoners, and there was not yet a US occupation regime in place on Yagaji Island.

Having finished their tasks, four GIs stripped down to their underwear and swam across, planning to return immediately a distance of only about a hundred yards. The terror of the girls on the beach stimulated sadism in the GIs who took the oldest girl, the village beauty, the very good-hearted Sayoko into the woods and gang-raped her.

On a later day, four GIs (it is not clear until later whether it was the same four) were again swimming over. Sayoko’s neighbor, Seiji, how had long had a crush on Sayoko and more or less lived in the water took his harpoon and swam toward the Americans (the harpoon tied to his wrist and not visible). He swam under one of the Americans and stabbed him in the gut (aiming for the liver). Two of the Americans pursued him, and Seiji stabbed one of them in the shoulder (the harpoon lodged there).

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(a grove by the beach on Yagaji Island, from WIkimedia Commons)

 

Later, Seiji hid in a cave. The village headman, who was eager to curry favor with the occupying Americans, betrayed his whereabouts. Seiji was smoked out with tear gas and shot several times. The villagers, who had been surprised that Seiji had not been slain with poison gas, assumed he would be executed, and were eager to tell the Americans that Seiji had acted alone, though many were ashamed at their failure to do anything to protect or avenge their women who were violated.

Only three of the eleven chapters are set in 1945. The events still reverberate on the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Okinawa, and the traumas (including ongoing mistreatment of Sayoko, who was unhinged in part by her father’s rejection of her following the traumas of the gang rape) linger.

Although the prime villains are obviously the four American rapists (three of whom died soon thereafter in the Battle of Okinawa without being court-martialed for the rape), the Okinawans both of the 1940s and 2000s do not come off well, bullying Seiji before and after the “incident” and Sayoko after it (including more rapes), along with a young Okinawan middle-school student (a first-person female narrator whose name is not mentioned).

Several of the characters in the 2005 chapters also recall the 1995 instance of three American servicemen raping an Okinawan elementary-school student. 9-11 also crops up. Much more than the rape and stab at revenge are remembered—and festering not only for those who were alive in 1945 but for those who were not then yet born — in Medoruma’s powerful book.

Despite the accretion of information about various individuals with a wide range of connections to the 1945 events on Yagaji Island, the book is not a difficult read, though the stream of consciousness Seiji chapters were more difficult (but not comparable in disorientation to Benjy’s in The Sound and the Fury, for instance). The original Japanese was mixed with Okinawan (the languages are not mutually intelligible and the Japanese have attempted to eliminate Okinawan (Ruykuan) since annexing the Ryuku Islands in 1879) in Medoruma’s book, a disorienting effect not available in English translation. Translator Takuma (né Paul) Sminkey (who teaches at Okinawa International University) made the reader-friendly addition of chapter titles (the name of the main character in each one) with the date (1945 or 2005) and also a preface providing context about Medoruma and the language (Japanese/Okinawan code-shifting) issue. The book was beautifully produced by Stone Bridge Press with a map, a character table, and an illuminated afterword by Kyle Ikeda.

Some of Medoruma’s short fiction has been translated into and included in anthologies. I hope that his other two (earlier) novels, The Crying Wind (2004) and The Rainbow Bird (2006) will follow in English translation.

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

War-enforced separation and diffidence providing obstacles to cross-class amour

According to André Aciman’s introduction to the New York Review publication, the first in English, of Journey Into the Past, its author Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) was translated into more languages than any of his contemporaries (Freud? Mann?). A part of the novella to which Aciman (Out of Egypt) provides way-too-long an introduction-in fact a complete retelling-was published in German in 1929. A manuscript was found and published in German during the 1970s, but in English only last November.

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The novella reminds me of “Brief Encounter,” though that script by Noël Coward (expanding his play “Still Life”) for David Lean’s 1945 tearjerker movies takes place entirely in a British railway station and involves a middle-class woman (Celia Johnson) and a physician (Trevor Howard) of roughly the same age, both of them married. One resemblance is that the man is going off to another continent.

Zweig’s pair differ in age (the woman is older) and their status difference is the opposite (the woman’s is much higher). They spend no time in train stations, though the flashbacks occur while they are in a train between Frankfurt and Heidelberg. The POV is that of the man, Ludwig, a chemist from a very poor family who became the in-house assistant to an unwell industrialist. The wife is very sensitive to the young man’s pride, and they fall in love, though he did not become fully aware of that until the eve of his departure to Mexico to oversee supply of some unspecified metal vital to the company.

There is not hint that the industrialist sent away a rival or had any awareness of their mutual attraction. As the job in Mexico is successfully accomplished, Europe plunges into war (WWI) and Ludwig not only cannot return, but cannot even communicate by letter with his beloved.
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I don’t want to emulate Aciman in plot-spoiling, but there are obstacles other than the class ones (which have been lessened by Ludwig’s Mexican success) to ecstatic, delayed reunion. (WWI ran August 1914- November 1918, and if Ludwig left in 1912, nine years would place the return to where he had lived in Frankfurt in 1923. Zweig did not offer any explanation of why the return wasn’t in 1919.)

For all the shared regret for the long separation-blamed on geopolitical interference-diffidence remains. (She feels old now and believes that “when a woman’s hair turns grey, she has no more to wish for, no more to give”) Ludwig remembers (not quite correctly) a couplet from Verlaine:

In the old park, in ice and snow caught fast
Two spectres walk, still searching for the past.

The regret-filled lovers are not specters, hair dye existed during the 1920s (not that Ludwig is put off by the grey of his beloved’s hair), and the past could be prologue.

The black-and-white movie-like 82-page novella is framed by substantial texts about Zweig and it. Award-winning translator Anthea Bell’s afterword should have been first and Aciman need not have told the whole story.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

Not being able to write the books he wanted to write

Marcel Bénabou’s often funny, but ultimately poignant Why I Have Not Written Any of My Boosk/Pourquoi je n’ai écrit aucun de mes livres(1986), seems to me to have some continuities with the prolific (albeit once-stalled) American writer with the meteoric rise, Michael Chabon. (Meteors flash and burn out, so I don’t quite understand the analogy… There is the Jewish boy’s ontogeny of the phylogeny of being the Chosen People (“No one around me, or at least no one in the narrow confines of my family, had ever doubted that my destiny would be a singular one”-71). And the reverence for sonorous words:

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“I never ran the risk of confusing things with their names. Most of the words I used were already almost entirely detached from their natural ties to things, and for this reason I found them intoxicatingly light. No heaviness came along to pull them down to the ground. The ones I loved the most (bergamot, natelle, botargo, galoubet, caillebotis) were attached to nothing I had before my eye. They were beautiful, shimmering, iridescent bubbles, and their emptiness mad them all the more precious to me.” (73-74)

And I apply Chabon’s vocation to use the resources of English words in “Things remain in existence only thanks to the effort made by a few people to recreate them day by day” (98, i.e., “if not me, who?”)

Chabon dramatized not being able to finish a book (the model for which always seemed arbitrary to him, whereas what the characters would do and say was clear to him in C&K). Bénabou addresses the multiple reasons not to write as “what had been a confident wait imperceptibly transformed itself into torpor” (62) and reading became a kind of bulimia in which he devoured much (writing by others) without retaining any trace (44).

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BTW, Bénabou also published the magnum opus of his work as a historian in 1976, La Résistance africaine à la romanisation.

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

The Moroccan Jewish diaspora, memory, etc.

I’m far from sure why I find Marcel Bénabou’s (1939-) knotted books interesting. The four that have been translated into English (all published by the University of Nebraska Press) are mostly about not being able to write the books he has long wanted to write. Bénabou, who was raised in a Jewish community in Meknès, Morocco and is a professor emeritus of ancient history (specializing in Roman North Africa) at the Paris Diderot University wanted what became Jacob, Menahem, and Mimoun: A Family Epic to be titled One Always Writes the Same Book. There are many “ones” about whom this is true Bénabou’s own books have different subjects, even if the books are mostly about the inability to write the book about the subject Bénabou chose. His book Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books is not about someone else having written his books but about failing to write more than fragments of the books (not just books, but masterpieces) that he planned, wanted to write, and tried to write, though only producing a few fragments that did not satisfy his high-vaulting ambitions. Along the way, that book also imparted some information about the author’s North African Jewish background.

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The closest of his books to a conventional narrative is Écrire sur Tamara/To Write on Tamara?, about which—in good Bénabou fashion—I have been unable to write a review of for some time since I read it. It includes what he presents as attempts dating back to the 1950s to write about his first great love, a sickly but very romantic girl whom he loved when he first came to Paris as a student and who died. Insofar as it is a memoir rather than a book about not being able to write a memoir of his young love, it has some overlap of characters with the book about (not being able to write the epic account of) his native Moroccan Jewish community and forebearers, Jacob, Menahem, and Mimoun. The parents and sister and his best friend who was aspiring to write a novel when both were high school students in Morocco appear in both books. There is no mention of Tamara in Jacob, Menahem, and Mimoun. The three names are Bénabou’s three grandfathers, none of whom he knew. He only has three because of the endogamy of his natal community (and five instead of eight great-grandfathers).

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Although not by nature (or commitment) a narrative writer, Bénabou does manage to tell something about his forebearers and about the now-vanished community of his childhood and youth in the French neo-colony (protectorate). Many of the Meknès Jews emigrated to Israel after Moroccan independence in 1956 and subsequent heightened persecution of Jews. Bénabou himself has lived in Paris since he went there as a student in 1957.

Along with some analysis of the culture and history of Moroccan Jewish communities and the place of his ancestors (both with rising and declining fortunes), he writes about how he came to view books as sacred and to want to write an epic about his unknown or forgotten people (Sephardic Jews living in a world not invoked by the various writings about Ashkenazic villages and ghettoes in Poland and the Ukraine with strange things such as fur hats: “These Jews in the cold, snow, and mud seemed to me incredibly [and therefore unusably] exotic…. I could not imagine that a Jewish life could be led in any other way than the constant complicity of the sun and the blue sky ” I can see Racine is not a suitable model, but I’m less clear about why Tacitus could not be one). He writes about various models that failed him or that he failed (including W, the recreation of a childhood about which he did not remember anything by Bénabou’s close friend and collaborator in the Workshop of Potential Literature (OULIPO), Georges Perec. There is something reminiscent of Borges in the summaries of the style and substance of books Bénabou sought to write, but didn’t. (And his position as a successful Parisian with an anti-nostalgic nostalgia for North Africa is reminiscent of the Jacques Derrida who appeared in the movie “Derrida” shortly before his death.)

Over time, the aging author’s memories faded and he discovered there was some documentation of the past that he believed would be lost if he did not write a comprehensive account. Moreover, Bénabou was put off by the egocentrism. He claimed that he “had been borne along by the illusion that I was merely a narrator whose task was to finally give a voice to all those whom I had pretensiously called ‘my people’; I realized that in fact I myself was making up most of the space in order to tell a few old personal secrets I had too carefully kept. I was afraid of having upstaged in this way the people I initially wanted to honor” (in this he would be like many contemporary “reflexive” anthropologists). He also came to recognize that his “mind was much too abstract, much too attracted to systems and combinatory games to be able to give birth to flesh and blood characters” and is much better at telling and commenting on than in showing (though better at showing than he gives himself credit for).

(Given that Bénabou has seemingly read everything, it seems odd to me that he does not mention The Tongue Set Free, the great memoir of growing up in another Sephardic community by Elias Canetti, a writer whose fictional masterpiece is about a bibliomaniac (and an unliterary housekeeper).)

The result is whatever the nonfiction analog of metafiction is. Metamemoir about trying to write a memoir and hobbled by more than doubt in the accuracy of the author’s memoir? The result, despite all the self-doubt and self-criticism, is not without charm and manages to convey some things about the vanished lifeways and about Bénabou’s mother as well as about the patriarchs named in the title. Bénabou did not deliver the book he felt that the history of Meknès Jews deserved, but did produce an often witty if generally melancholic postmodernist monument to his background. If they were not epic heroes, if Marcel Bénabou is neither an epic hero nor an epic writer, the book he did produce shows that Someone Was There. And, as with the library of titles Borges imagined, filling out the volumes might be less interesting than the sketches of the books that don’t exist.

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray