Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Betty san - Stories by Yamamoto Michiko

Translated by Geraldine Harcourt, with cover photography by Martin Richardson and published by Kodansha, Betty-san-Stories, collected four short stories/novellas by Yamamoto Michiko, all published originally in Japan in 1972, the stories draw on the authors experiences of living in Australia in the early seventies. The collection includes the story Betei-san no Niwa/Betty's Garden which won Yamamoto the Akutagawa Prize in 1972, the story is told by Betty-San, married to Mike, moves to Australia where Mike works in local government. Betty who changed her name from her Japanese one of Yuuko when she married, was also baptised at the same time. Determined at first to adapt to her new country, she soon begins to think of her parents, which in turn makes her contemplate her home country, her surroundings begin to appear increasingly alien to her, and she finds herself out of step, Mike has grown colder towards her and at times overbearing. Every now and then Japanese fishermen visit the local harbour, and she takes them rice balls that she made for them, making the most of this small connection with home, and for a while she can talk in her mother tongue again, occasionally she holds barbecue's for the sailors in her garden, these garden parties act as Betty's haven. Once she is asked to help translate for a Japanese woman who is held in quarantine at the local customs office, looking forward to talking with the woman, Betty readily agrees, but when they meet the woman asks sardonically, 'Are you really Japanese?', after the woman leaves Betty breaks down and sobs. She recalls the times she lived in Darwin and Alice Springs, 'I was so permanently awed by my surroundings, that I lost sight of the way people are meant to live', she observes about herself.

When she first moved to her area, she was the only Japanese in her neighbourhood, but after three or four years, another Japanese woman appears called Haruko, who returns to Japan at least once a year. Betty has three sons, Jerry, John and Bobby, Jerry who works at the post office volunteers to save up his wage so that she can visit Japan, when the children were younger Betty-san would go out for walks, and Mike would usually come out in the car to pick her up, often she would walk down on the beach, she realizes she has forgotten the sense of security found in walking in a crowd, with no friends she would sit in the kitchen staring distractedly at the sky for hours on end. The differences within the family are strained when she takes in a young sailor who was stabbed during a fight on one of the Japanese fishing boats, none of the rest of her family speak Japanese, and there are times when Betty and the sailor are talking in Japanese, which proves to unsettle the rest of the family. The character of Betty-san is well conceived, and the nuances of the difficulties of the cross cultural experience within the family setting is observed in exacting prose, and also that of Betty's quiet sense of loneliness is brilliantly conveyed.

The very brief story Father Goose/Rojin no Kamo is included as is Powers/Maho, which won the Shincho Prize, a story that shares a common framework to the title story, although the husband and wife are both Japanese, Ryosuke and Asako, they also have young Yuri, they came to Australia for Ryosuke's job. Asako seems to be fascinated, possibly attracted to their neighbours young son, Sean,the community where they live is made up of families from other nationalities, and another family that features prominently is a neighbouring Italian family, at the centre of this story is an accident involving the son of the Italian family. This story too looks at the ambiguities within multi culture emigrant communities. Chair in the Rain/Ame no Isu, the last story, in which Japanese couple Nakako and Ryuji make the move out of Japan, Nakako leaving behind the security of her job in advertising, plans to start a family, this plan though before we know it soon drifts away into the distant past. The couple rent what used to be the Portuguese consul's house, and for a while after they've moved in they receive random phone calls from people requiring information on passports and visa's etc, one caller seems to stand out from the rest, a man simply asking for a woman called Louise. Nakako buys a cat to try and cure her loneliness, but the cat ends up forming an unlikely alliance with Ryuji. There are a few uses of symbolism among these stories,as when Ryuji confesses to Nakako that he's actually infertile, the plans of starting a family disappear, which add to Nakako's growing sense of desperation and solitude, before this, Ryuji goes to great lengths planning to mate the cat with a colleague's cat, the animal's desperate cries at night seem to be another sign of Nakako's failed attempt at making things better for herself, as this heightens her antagonism. Also at the end of Betty's Garden, as Betty and her sons drive home from dropping off Mike, who is about to take a business trip with a young secretary, her fears that he maybe embarking on an affair are heightened when they see a burning buffalo at the side of the desert highway.


mel u said...

this sounds like a wonderful collection of novelas-thank you for once again introducing me to a great writer

me. said...

Really enjoyed this book,a satisfying read,something about Yamamoto's style reminded me of Ogawa Yoko.I'm not sure on the availability of this book,but well worth tracking down a copy.