Sunday, 18 September 2011


Sometimes it's odd how reading choices or inspiration for reading plans come about, whilst reading Plainsong, two other author's stories came to mind, Nakagami Kenji, who is mentioned in Plainsong is an author I've been meaning to re-read for some time, one of his short stories - Gravity's Capital seems to stand out to be read again for me at the moment. Another story that sprang to mind to read was Furui Yoshikichi's Yoko which won the Akutagwa Prize back in 1970, a story concerning a man's relationship with an emotionally fragile woman, translated by Donna George Storey in Child of Darkness,  sadly I don't have a copy of this story to read yet, although looking through my copy of Contemporary Japanese Literature edited by Howard Hibbett I realized that it contains the story by Furui called Wedlock, which originally appeared in Japan in 1970 with the title Tsumagomi,  in the introduction to his translation Howard Hibbett notes that Tsumagomi is an archaic word translating as 'wife keeping', the word appears in an early waka poem from dialogue attributed to Susanoo no Mikoto, the shinto God of the sea and storms, Furui as well as being novelist and short story writer also translated works by Austrian novelists Robert Musil and Hermann Broch, Furui studied German Literature at the University of Tokyo. As well as having an unusually disarming opening scenario, the sequencing of the scenes in Wedlock are seamlessly presented to the reader, although Furui reverses the events of the novella to a period before that of the first opening and then flows on past it adding to the flow of  events a momentum that draws the reader in. The novella is largely seen through Hisao who at the start is stood outside his apartment when out of the trees nearby an old woman approaches him asking after Hiroshi, the neighbouring apartment to Hisao's is occupied by a group of rowdy day labourers who are a source of irritation, keeping the neighbourhood awake with loud t.v, singing and drunken behaviour. The old woman mistakes Hisao as being a member of this household and begins to harangue him about wasting his time and that if he were to attend one of her meetings she could fix him up with a nice young bride, adding that if he doesn't change he'll be stuck with a bad woman, she leaves asking him to get a message to Hiroshi about that nights meeting. Hisao goes back inside his flat and relays what happened to his wife, Rieko, she in turn begins to berate Hisao for talking to the woman. Hisao's illness of the week before is described in very lucid prose, describing him passing out at work, his sense of location shifts a number of times, recalling being at the infirmary at work he also has the sensation of a car journey and of lying out on the tatami in their apartment, eventually Reiko revives him by feeding him slices of peach. His convalescence is mainly spent observing his wife going about domestic chores, these take on almost ethereal quality. The figure of the  boy who has been delivering the peaches merges with that of Hiroshi, and Reiko later tells that Hiroshi had run an errand to the doctors whilst Hisao was ill.

Through the slight alteration in the way the scenes are presented and the conversation Hisao has with the old woman, Furui brings the reader's attention to one of the themes of the story - the extent of self awareness and perceptions of the self, these doubts about self identity are provoked through the slight circumstances of mistaken identity within the novella. Another event in their married life is recalled when Hisao had lost the key to their apartment and after getting drunk had managed to get in and eventually collapsed under the duvet, Rieko had at first thought he was an intruder. The story examines this theme from many subtle perspectives, the labourers next door all have northern accents, and by turns we learn that Reiko comes from the same town as Hiroshi, this becomes more unexplored territory between Hisao and Reiko,  which is heightened when she accepts a drink from them near the end of the story when she takes out the rubbish. Through simple observations of Hisao and Reiko in their apartment, Furui weaves fantastically complex insights of their relationship. Reiko also confesses to speaking with the old woman too during Hisao's illness, the old woman seemed to be provoking Reiko into considering remarrying, Reiko notes 'When you listen to her you begin to wonder who you are yourself', each in their own way consider that the old woman had identified the insecurities in their married life, the story could also be seen as an acutely observed examination of marriage. Another dimension to the story is in the nature of Hiroshi's relationship to both the old woman and also with the other day labourers, it appears that he could be suffering abuse from them, they taunt him almost throughout the duration of the story, and the nature of the abuse is not clearly defined, Hisao recalls seeing Hiroshi vomiting in the fields through drinking too much and then seeing another of the day labourers appearing naked at the door calling Hiroshi back into the house, but later in the story it appears that Hiroshi's father is a member of the household, the nature of his suffering is unclear, it's not until Hiroshi is drunk that he manages to gather the courage to fight back. Wedlock/Tsumagomi is an intriguing story to start by means of an introduction to Furui's writing, I have a copy of White Haired Melody/Hakuhatsu no uta, translated by Meredith McKinney, a novel about ageing to read in the future.

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