30 March 2018

Tsushima's light and darkness

Territory of Light by Yūko Tsushima, translated by Geraldine Harcourt (Penguin Classics, 2018)

Yūko Tsushima's early novels and stories, at least those that were translated so far, were of a piece. They were variations of a single theme: they constantly featured single mothers and their struggles to raise their daughters alone in modern Japanese society that was still marked by traditional mores. Her latest in translation, Territory of Light, appeared originally in 1978-79, between the publication of Child of Fortune (1978) and Woman Running in the Mountains (1980). It might not be far-fetched to say that each of the first person narrators in these I-novels (Shishōsetsu) could be substituted for each other. They registered the same cold voice, the same stubbornness, and the same calculated rebelliousness.

While the backgrounds of the female characters were the same, the individuated details and poetic images were what made them distinctly whole and apart. The silent voice and quiet devastation lingered in each for a long time. The single mother was thankfully not a saint or martyr, but just a plain human being, what shallow readers would usually detest for being "unlikeable" or "unrelatable". Because they were fallible and often turned down by their own failings, their journeys were all the more interesting. They usually began as a newly separated single mother, challenged by ordinary circumstances, judged by society and their designated moral police or arbiters, and eventually, gradually, gaining and recognizing their self-worth.

Even if I was an incorrigible fool, I wanted to believe that there was still something fundamental in me worthy of my own respect.

With combined humility of character and stinging outbursts of emotion, the wife decided to file for divorce from Fujino, her husband, after he practically abandoned her and their daughter. This decision was rebuffed by her and Fujino's friends and acquaintances. "Nothing good will come of a divorce", one would say to convince her to backtrack from her decision. "Believe me, nothing goes right for a woman of her own", another one would tell her pointedly. And her husband would chastise her, "how are you going to manage with the little one on your own?" "Shadowy figures", who seemingly were conspiring collectively against her, would plague her consciousness. This novel was as much a poetic journey toward an unknown epiphany as a psychological journey (or "transformation", though that word is overused) of the woman from a helpless single mother to an independent individual able to repulse at every turn the forces that compel her not to turn away from her husband and "ruin" the family.


Among her virtues as a novelist, Tsushima's extraordinary display of compassion and empathy was the most haunting. Contemplating the reasons behind a woman's suicide by jumping in front of a train, the narrator of Territory of Light was "gripped by a sense that [she] shouldn't distance [herself] from the person who'd gone under the train as if it were nothing to do with [her]." Her extraordinary sympathy extended from the singular victim to the collective.

What burden of suffering or grief had brought them [the suicides] to this point? How long had they spent on this platform, and what were they looking at? They'd stood here alone, unnoticed. Now there was a whole crowd staring at the cast-off physical body, mangled and bloodied. What pain had driven them to it? I wanted to know, I badly wanted to know.

In several instances, the female protagonist was creating scenarios in her mind where she tried to communicate with characters or imagine a conversation. She would, for example, recall a story in her childhood wherein several children talked about the miraculous survival of a boy who fell from the school's rooftop, who had fortuitously landed on a water trough just about his own size. She would consider the veracity of this story in hindsight, and assume that the story might be a fictionalized account because it was convenient for children to think so.

The children might well have made up that version of events. Maybe one of them saw the accident victim's body, noticed the nearby cistern, thought 'If only he'd landed in there', and in a moment of anger at the child who hadn't fallen where he should, decided to forget he was dead. Reality couldn't be as brutal as that. Perhaps the child who saw returned to his playmates, not giving the body with its shattered skull a backward glance, and reported: 'They say someone fell off the roof, but he fell right into the water and he's fine,' adding, with a laugh, 'Some people do the weirdest things!' Yes, I remember the rumour as always being accompanied by laughter. The children had realized that it was possible to survive a fall from a roof, despite the grownups' best efforts to scare them, and the shared sense of superiority this gave them made them erupt in laughter.

This made-up story would itself be tested by the end of the chapter. In any case, this building of an alternate reality within the reality of the fictional fabric, making up a different version of past events, a kind of fiction within fictionwas a technique that Tsushima was using since Child of Fortune, her first novel, and was exploited in full in her novel Laughing Wolf. In the latter, the children's points of view were the departure point to set off convenient fictions, assumptions, and simulations to stave off the brutality of reality. As the narrator confessed at one point, "it cheered me up to expand the bounds of what I could think of as not impossible."

In a scene of the mother and daughter visiting a tree park on a Sunday, she imagined a playful conversation with another pair of mother and daughter she encountered in the park. The imagined version of an event to suit one's convenience was also akin to the imagined transaction or trade in "The Silent Traders", one of Tsushima's signature stories in The Shooting Gallery. In an almost similar manner and voice, the mother created a fictional version of a "silent trade" in her mind as a substitute to the boredom, insecurity, and fear she felt as a single mother, this time looking for a child who just ran away from her.

Tsushima's approach to the novel was also unique in terms of her handling of imagery. The twelve chapters, which originally came out in monthly installments in a Japanese periodical, were often built around a single image mentioned in the title. Hence, "The Water's Edge" was centered around the flooding of the apartment roof. The narrative unfolded with the restraint and grace of the elements – light, water, wind, sand dunes, trees, birds, fire. And with light as the dominant, illuminating image, the poetry was evident in the sentences. Geraldine Harcourt, the perennial translator of Tsushima's novels and stories, must have been on point and extra cautious in her selection of words here if she can reproduce sentences like, "The early summer leaves were still young; they stirred coolly at the tips of the branches, giving off tiny gleams that flitted like insects", or "The more of those gloomy, cramped apartments I looked at, the further the figure of my husband receded from sight, and while the rooms were invariably dark, I began to sense a gleam in their darkness like that of an animal's eyes. There was something there glaring back at me. Although it scared me, I wanted to approach it."

Harcourt was able to reproduce not only Tsushima's poetic touches but also her characteristic motifs here and in stories elsewhere – shooting galleries, aquariums – including the abiding figure of a mentally handicapped boy who, like a guardian angel, was almost to be expected in every novel and story of Tsushima's. Another fascinating aspect of the stories was the dream sequences which the mother constantly relived as if to assuage her heightened anxiety.

While the element of water was also very pronounced, as it was in Child of Fortune and in "The Watery Realm", from the recent two-story sampler Of Dogs and Walls (2018), it is the titular imagery of light that surfaces now and again in the novel. In the tradition of Sōseki's Meian (Light and Darkness) and Tanizaki's In Praise of Shadows, Tsushima fully embraced the light and bathed her scenes in it.

My daughter ... scampered off towards the pond. I ran after her, out of breath. A weeping willow stood at the point where the side path joined the main one. As it caught the rays of the sinking sun full on, its brightness was dazzling to eyes grown accustomed to the shadows. My daughter was jumping up and down, trying to grab one of the willow's dangling branches. All right, I would wow her by grabbing a whole bunch. Shading my eyes with one hand, I approached my daughter in the light.

While light was everywhere in various forms, the "territory of light" was the single mother's newfound apartment that gave her freedom to live on her own after her husband abandoned her. The wide windows that brought in sunlight to the rooms enabled her to expel the actual and symbolic shadows and darkness lurking in the corners. The novel thus explored how it is to claim just such a territory, such a certain sanctuary. Just how it is to search for and live in a clean, well-lighted place. By the novel's end, we saw the mother, after bathing her life in the light for some time, expelling darkness in the process, ready to face darkness once again as she made arrangements to transfer to a new apartment room that was now placed in a dark, secluded corner.


When Yūko Tsushima passed away on February 2016, she was at the peak of her literary prowess. Unfortunately for readers in English, we have not yet encountered the full range of her achievement and genius. Much remained untranslated in Tsushima's oeuvre. In contrast to the themes of motherhood and pregnancy in the early novels, there was what might be termed a Tsushima late style. To be more precise, this style constituted a geographic and thematic shift in subject in her later works. Already, through the prism of single mothers trying to cope with their situation amid fears and insecurities, the novelist was able to distill the rhythms and textures of a challenged, solitary life. In her recent novels, she turned from the domestic upheavals of a split nuclear family to the varied classical and historical themes in Japanese fiction. Think of wars, famines, and religion. Then combine it with Tsushima's modernist techniques in full throttle, already apparent in her early fiction and exemplified in Laughing Wolf, originally published in 2000 and her only novel translated so far in this mold.

In terms of geographic reach, Tsushima's settings of late veered toward Eastern and Southeast Asia. According to Harcourt, her final novel was partly set in Macau and Batavia during the 17th century. As evident from an interview with her in 2014, posted in Youtube (here) with subtitles by Harcourt, Tsushima was influenced by indigenous people's worldviews, particularly the Ainu's, and ecological issues in the early 1990s, something that have influenced her recent work. What is clear is that the full extent of her innovation in novel writing is yet to be revealed in translation.

I received a review copy of the book from the publisher. I have to commend them for the increasing interest they take on Tsushima's fiction. Child of Fortune, which has gone out of print, will be republished by them later in the year. My gratitude also for the translator, Geraldine Harcourt, for her correspondence in early 2016.

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