Thursday, 15 October 2009


The novel opens with Setsuko Oizumi feeling around the walls of her shelter, although her eyes are wide open all she can see is darkness, her home destroyed in the bombing, she knows death is not far away, it's only a matter of time. In the darkness fragmentary memories of her family before the war return to her, she remembers sitting at the kotatsu, listening to her brother, Hajime, talking with his friend Shuzo Wakai, Shuzo telling him about his elder brother Shoichi's imprisonment and the death of his other brother Seiji, who wanted to be a pianist but had became a naval pilot cadet, killed in action. Seiji's last letter home was some sheets of music he had written out, a Chopin Polonaise, and part of Schumann's 'Scenes of Childhood'. The novel skips between memory, flashbacks, going back and forth from Setsuko's recollections whilst lying in the shelter, from what appears at first, must be a near fatal bombing raid. The book is nearly a novella being just 122 pages long, the translation is by Geraldine Harcourt, due to the fragmentary nature of the novel, from memory to recollection, it must of been a sometimes difficult translation. It was part of Kodansha's Japan's Women Writers series, originally published by them in 1985, published in Japan in 1973 by Bungei Shunju, I think there was a UK edition published by the Women's Press. It was published originally in the literary review Bungakukai and won the Akutagawa prize.
Hajime had sent postcards home to his family, his father had kept one with him wherever he went, Setsuko recalls that it must have been in his pocket the morning her father went missing, he had left for work, there was an air raid, bombs fell by the station, he never returned. The family had decided not to evacuate the city, reasoning, that although they lived near the station the bomber's wouldn't strike twice. As Setsuko's story unravels and through the exchange of letters with her friend Naomi Niwa, we learn that Setsuko worked in a factory. Naomi admires her friends courage, she writes to Setsuko about her parents, her father, a Professor, is also in prison for 'thought' crimes, (Shoichi turns out to be a pupil of Professor Niwa). Naomi tells her of her mother's increasing desperation, longing for the war to end. Naomi shares her interest with the novel 'Les Thibaults' by Martin du Gard, constantly referring back to the character's actions in the novel, and Setsuko vows to read more.

After the family home is destroyed in the raids, Setsuko and her mother (Mine) move into a carriage of a Keihin Express train which is parked up in a siding, they share it with several other families. Lying in the shelter Setsuko remembers the day when she offered her mother to help look for their father's body. After a while her mother confesses that's she's given up looking, looking among the charred corpses, she couldn't tell if they were man or woman, and couldn't stop thinking about all those people's families. Setsuko observes how suddenly people can die, a friend waving goodbye at a rail station may never be seen again, more and more the looks on peoples faces acknowledge this when they say goodbye to each other, this could be the last time they see each other. Naomi's mother's condition gets worse, although told not to drink by the doctor, she always manages to pawn off another item in the house to buy sake on the black market, shortly after comes the confirmation of the death of Naomi's father. One day returning from work, the head of the neighbourhood association meets Setsuko off the train, 'Setsuko-chan, I'm so sorry', already she knows, her mother is dead, whilst in line for rations, two fighters came down low and opened fire on the line of people. Although numbed, Setsuko had come to terms with the fact that everyone was going to die, fighting to the death, when the surrender comes she's left reeling, what was it all for?.

Shizuko Go had first hand experience's of the bombing of Yokohama,(where the novel is set), and like Setsuko in the novel suffered from tuberculosis. The way the novel is told, fragment by fragment, enhances each of the characters feelings and opinions about the war, Naomi wanted to seek revenge on her father's killers, and as Setsuko begins to question her feelings about the nation and war, the only thing they have left is their friendship, if only there were no wars, for quite a slim volume, the novel leaves so many questions to think over.

1 comment:

mel u said...

This sounds like a wonderful work-I hope I can obtain a copy of it-thanks for posting on it-