29 March 2011

Chronicle of My Mother (Inoue Yasushi)

[If] an emotional love—even just a tiny fragment—has endured throughout a person's life, then one cannot say that life has been entirely wasted. [p. 33]

Inoue Yasushi (1907-1991) was primarily known as a historical novelist from Japan and author of such acclaimed works as Tun-huang. – I haven't read Tun-Huang but the review in Coffeespoons captivated me so I decided to pick up this one, my first Inoue. – In Chronicle of My Mother, translated by Jean Oda Moy, the novelist wrote about the last decade of his mother's life. It charted the mother's aging, senility, and death, up to the late age of 89. The chronicle was divided into three parts. "Under the Blossoms," the first, was published in 1964. The succeeding, "The Light of the Moon" and "The Surface of the Snow," were published five years apart from each other. Inside these poetically titled sections, Inoue shared first-hand accounts of the difficulties he and his siblings faced while caring for their mother ("Granny"). Tthe deterioration of Granny's physical and mental health was detailed in very concrete terms that were surprisingly devoid of self-pity. The children tried to rationalize the puzzling gaps in Granny’s memory. The events that she was able to recall from her past and the possible explanation for this selective memory were a constant preoccupation for Inoue. Granny's senility was evident from her utter forgetfulness, repetitiveness, and mood swings: "We first became aware of the severity of her condition when we realized that Mother herself did not understand, or accept, the fact that she kept forgetting what she said and repeated herself. . . . although she heard what was said, she retained it only that moment and promptly forgot about it." Despite Granny's condition, which was stressful for all those caring for her, her children were very understanding of her condition. They were supportive of each other and were very willing to attend to her needs.

The family culture that was described in the chronicle was exclusively Japanese, though the universal theme will resonate for anyone. In the translator’s introduction, Jean Oda Moy, an Asian American, described the increasing lack of regard for aging parents as a result of materialism: "With the unprecedented social and cultural changes taking place in Japan today, many traditional values which might appear to interfere with productivity and 'success'—in short, with rampant materialism—are losing ground. . . . In Japan as in the West, the elderly today are frequently shunted aside, ignored, or made to feel they are a burden." Inoue's family, as portrayed in the book, was one of those who adhere to a strong sense of duty and love for old parents. The economy of words, the poetry, and the lack of sentimentality made Chronicle of My Mother a touching and accessible read. It is a good example of "grief literature," one that was by no means a depressing elegy. On the contrary, the reader can sense positive feelings from the book and this could be attributed to Inoue's empathy, compassion, and love for his mother. He produced an intimate memoir, one that also served as a paean to motherhood and family ties.


  1. I'm not familiar with the author, Rise, but I hope to expand my horizons with Asian lit in general once I catch up a little bit on my backlog. Have had to set aside Murakami's Wind Up Bird Chronicle for the moment because, even though I was enjoying it, I think I'm better off only reading one chunkster at a time. In April that will be Proust. What do you have coming up--anything you care to share? Cheers!

  2. Richard, I've picked up several anthologies which will take time to finish but I'm happily plodding through them. The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry is brilliant, perhaps the best collection of its kind. Also, the Oxford Anthology of the Brazilian Short Story is a treasure chest. There are multiple stories from Machado de Assis, Clarice Lispector, and Joao Guimaraes Rosa, not to mention a trove of writers new to me. I've started Life A User's Manual with a combination of excitement and dread. But dread prevails for the moment, so I'm not sure if I will be able to dip into it straight through. You're right, one chunkster at a time is a good way to deal with these mammoth objects. Proust! I have a heart to start Swann's Way but still not committing to the entire series. Other books that were on the plate include Bartleby & Co. by Enrique Vila-Matas and more from Japan - Fumiko Enchi, Shusaku Endo, etc.

  3. What great reading you have lined up, Rise--not sure you can go wrong there (though I only know those Japanese authors by name)! I think you might find the Perec a lot lighter going (but still wowing) once you get past the intro stuff, and that Vila-Matas is a brilliant little laugh-fest. I need to make time for Guimaraes Rosa, but I just ordered two more Spanish-language books tonight (one being Marías' Corazón tan blanco, which I believe you raved about recently) so the TBR keeps growing. Anyway, happy reading to you my friend and keep those reviews coming, please! :D

  4. A Heart So White is one of the highlights of my first quarter. Which reminds me, I may be able to join your planned group reading of Your Face Tomorrow, though only for the last volume as I already finished the first two.

    Based on my first browse, the Vila-Matas really grabs from the opening page. The premise is fun. Will make time for reviews whenever Time is cooperative enough. :p