Monday, 9 August 2010

Watcher from the Shore

This deeply contemplative novel by Ayako Sono was published by Kodansha in 1990, originally appearing in Japan in 1980, and won the Woman's Literature Prize, translated by Edward Putzar from the Japanese title Kami no yogoreta te, which translates as something quite different from the given title, but Watcher from the Shore is a fitting title. The novel's narrator Sadaharu, opened a gynaecological clinic some years before, he chooses a spot as close as he could find next to the sea, although he has a good reputation he is not clear from paying off his debts and loans he took out in order to start his surgery. Sadaharu's relationship with his wife is somewhere between deterioration and distant, although they have a daughter. His wife spends a lot of her time away from the family home, how and why their relationship has arrived at this impasse is none to clear. Sadaharu likens his job as a gynaecologist as to that of an automobile repair shop, we follow him as he treats his patients, 'sexual matters were simply medical phenomenon' he surmises treating a woman with candida. He gets a call from Yoko Kakei, her American husband died in an airplane crash in Sagami Bay, since then she has travelled, she invites Sadaharu over that evening, when he arrives he finds she already has a visitor, Father Munechika, a local priest, after a few drinks Sadaharu talks over some of the cases he has attended to, the two men find they have more than they assumed in common, both deal with the aspect of human nature most people keep hidden, the conversation turns to calculating the number of abortions performed in Japan over the past years. As the two men talk, the differring approaches to the ethics of each men's calling is subtly examined, and interestingly in this novel their conversation is not confrontational, but the two men seem to illuminate what the other doesn't know or understand about the topic of their discussion. In the middle of the novel after visiting an orphanage for abandoned children, Sadaharu points out that maybe in some cases it's more humane not to let a child come into the world to suffer deformities acquired before birth, Father Munechika responds by saying that it's not up to man who decides who lives or dies, God decides, anything resembling life is better than not having life at all he concludes. Sadaharu's frustration at one patient's mother in-law surfaces, 'For people like this such things as respect for life were merely convenient words, to be used only when a convenient reason existed. Probably there were those in society whom people want to see live, but by the same measure there were those whom people would rather see die. In either case,judgement was related to profit and loss. His mind thus occupied, Sadaharu coldly walked away'.

Through Sadaharu's patients, the novel examines the ethics and attitudes of abortion, illegitimacy and adoption within society, Sadaharu's convictions are dramatically questioned when an abortion he performed didn't succeed, his patient contacts him again, her feelings toward her pregnancy have changed, and she decides to keep her baby, Sadaharu's convictions as a physician are subject to question through out many of his patients cases.Through one of his patients he learns that his wife met up with the father of one of his patients in a trip to Los Angeles, these suspicions about his wife add further uncertainty about his feelings for his wife. Sadaharu's evening visits to Yoko continue, one night she lends him a copy of The Epic of Gilgamesh, a book he'd never read before, he's much taken with the scene of the flooding, 'He didn't mean that it was good that humanity had perished, but the vision of humanity dying so quickly before the overwhelming force of nature was a vision to shake the soul'. The novel I think is now no longer in print, the back jacket image above features art from a painting by Tatsuo Takayama.

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