May 15, 2015

Woman Running in the Mountains


Woman Running in the Mountains by Tsushima Yūko, tr. Geraldine Harcourt (Pantheon Books, 1991)


She was a full six months pregnant by the time her mother noticed. Her mother at once launched into an endless stream of angry questions, demanding to know why hadn't she gotten an abortion, how had it happened, who was the man, did she want his child because she loved him, was he a married man, did he know, did she plan to bring it up herself, did she think she knew how, was she doing this to get back at her parents, did she have such a grudge against her father, did she realize what this would do to her life, and just what was the big idea?

The consistency with which Tsushima Yūko plumbed the stories of single women dealing with pregnancy and motherhood is impressive. The women in her narratives face debilitating domestic situations. As in this novel where Takiko Okada found herself constrained to bring out a child in a society where her kind is being discriminated against. Even her pregnancy does not deter her father from physically assaulting her several times.

But Tsushima's Takiko does not belong to the traditional mold of feminist heroines. Her protagonists start out as uncaring of their lot in life. The shift in their disposition is very slow in coming. The process of discovery and recognition is a slow burning of indifference and reflection. Takiko doesn't or can't particularly think far ahead of her situation. She can be profoundly apathetic. And she can be ruthlessly pragmatic. They are, at best, passive resisters of life.

When they'd told her at dawn, "It's a healthy baby boy," they must have been talking about her child. But she could also have dreamed those words. She was in no hurry to find out. Whether what she'd given birth to was alive or dead, and what it might be like if it was alive, need not concern her right now. Takiko couldn't help being profoundly relieved to find that her own body seemed to have come through safely. As long as she, at least, could live that would be enough. She couldn't let anything happen to her because of this, not when it had turned out to be such a simple thing.

Little by little, Takiko starts to acknowledge her motherhood. She enrolls her son in a baby home and actively participates in recording and reading the baby's progress in a journal.

Mon., Jan 1 (cloudy)
 7:15   Formula (200 cc).
           Bed.
10:10  Playing on his own.
11:00  Pumpkin puree (small amount).
           Formula (200 cc).
11:50  Started crying.
12:10  Bed.
 1:00   Woke up and started crying.
 1:30   Juice (120 cc).
 3:00   Formula (200 cc).
 4:30   Very bad temper.
 5:30   Bed.
 6:00   Started to howl.
 6:20   Gave him a crust to suck.
           BM.
 7:30   Formula (200 cc).
 9:00   Started to cry.
 9:30   Bath.
 9:45  Juice (120 cc)
          Bed.

The long stretches of this journal in the book are puzzling and yet somehow illuminating. The writing is accessible, with flashes of engaging haiku-like lyricism, yet the ideas are modernist and complex. This novel mystifies through suggestiveness and avoids being too subtle. Her naturalistic writing in this book is beyond subtle. It can even veer toward comedy of the dark kind.

Takiko closed her eyes and relaxed. The bed was slow to warm up. The snow outside had given the room an icy chill, the first real cold of the winter. In the living room the kerosene heater would still be burning with a bluish flame. There might well be an earthquake in the night, or one of the men [her father and drinking companions] might knock it over with his foot and start a fire. But so what if there was a fire? Since Atsushi [her brother] would no doubt rescue their mother, at worst those three men would burn to death, and she and Akira [her baby] as well if she didn't wake up; and the house would burn down. That was the worst that could happen, and it wouldn't be any great loss. If she turned the heater off the three men might freeze to death in this drafty house. Seeing as how they were such old friends, born in the same town, that might not be such a bad way to go. But if everyone were calmly to wake up tomorrow morning without having burned or frozen to death, that wouldn't be a bad thing either.

In this novel published in Japan in 1980 and in her first, Child of Fortune (1978) and in The Shooting Gallery and Other Stories, Tsushima has mapped out the subterranean consciousness of women responding to difficulties in their lives in their own singular ways, responding to the shifting societal and economic forces in Japan in the 1970s and 1980s.

The choices Takiko made, for better or worse, are hers alone. This is what ultimately defines her and how she came to achieve her sense of self.

She didn't regret it, nor did she think she ought to go down on her knees and apologize to her mother. This wasn't something that an apology would solve. It wasn't something that allowed regrets and second tries. All she could do was go on giving Akira his bottle and watching her parents, her brother, and her self, without regrets. There was nothing else she could do: this was the conclusion she inevitably reached. She had given birth to a baby that no one had wanted her to have, a birth to which she alone had consented. Regrets were not permitted.

Takiko's passivity ("All she could do ...")  belies the power she gained from acknowledging and accepting the repercussions of her decisions. Takiko herself is a complex portrait of a society coming slow to a liberal mindset. This is reflected in the three-part structure of the book, mirroring the various changes in her employment status as she constantly changes jobs to support her baby. The structure follows Takiko's gradual recovery of her self-worth, in her own eyes and in the eyes of the reader. Suffice it to say that the third act of the book involves a literal mountain and a man that opens her eyes to wider horizons. The mountain as an elevated destination. The ideal place to reconcile inner with outer conflicts. From which she would descend with a newer purpose.



With thanks to the translator Geraldine Harcourt for a copy of the book and for sharing her translation of a very insightful kaisetsu (commentary) by Tomoyuki Hoshino which appeared as an afterword in the novel's 2006 paperback edition in Japanese.



2 comments:

  1. This has real appeal, with the slow dawning of I suppose an awakening of herself & the way you mentioned a Haiku like structure gives it added interest. Thanks for the heads up on this one.

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