Sunday, 6 May 2012

Embracing Family by Nobuo Kojima

Embracing Family/Houyou kazoku won Nobuo Kojima the first Tanizaki Prize awarded back in 1965, like his earlier short story, The American School, (trans.William F.Sibley), the novel shares its setting immediately after the Pacific War, (although maybe a few years later), and explores the effects of the presence of the occupying forces, in The American School it is viewed through a group of teachers as they march towards the school they are scheduled to teach at, in Embracing Family it's seen through the domestic setting of the Miwa family. Shunsuke is a Professor who has lectured on Japanese Literature in America and also within Japan he lectures on the American way of life, he is married to Tokiko and they have a son, Ryoichi and a daughter, Noriko, with few characters to the novel it at times resembles the framework of a play. An addition to this family setting is a maid, Michiyo, and also an American soldier, (George), who has gone AWOL, his presence in the household has been initiated by another American called Henry whose mistress is Michiyo's sister. Through an accusation by Michiyo that Tokiko and George are having an affair the novel turns its attention to examine the fragilities of Tokiko and Shunsuke's marriage, the novel operates on different levels, addressing and presenting various issues, although in comparing it to The American School, in Embracing Family the differences, and to a degree the opposing aspects between American and Japanese culture appear more referentially. Tokiko persuades Shunsuke that perhaps Michiyo is manipulating the truth and that George had forced himself on her, she had kept quiet in order not to wake the children, Tokiko points out as well to the fact that Michiyo's accusations have the potential to ruin the family's reputation, but at the same time Tokiko seems to want to prolong her contact with George who represents an escape from the drudgery of her domestic servitude. Shunsuke arranges to meet George with Tokiko in an attempt to establish the truth but the meeting ends with Shunsuke yelling at George, "Yankee, Go home!".

After the turmoil of the affair eventually dissipates, through Tokiko's instigation the family purchases a plot of land, forty minutes from Shinjuku, (which slightly reveals the novel's age), to build a designer new home which features a Western bath room and other examples of Western design, radiators, etc, it acts as a kind of a hybrid between the two cultures, but Kojima adds a symbolical element to it's description in that the ceiling develops a leak when it rains. Shunsuke's impression of the American way of life appears more pragmatic as opposed to Tokiko's which remains slightly more idealistic. It becomes apparent that Shunsuke too had had an affair before he left for the war, although within the novel it doesn't seem to count as much as Tokiko's affair, Tokiko openly states that if she were younger she would have gone with George, and he counters that he had no feelings for the woman he had an affair with, the couples arguing is often reduced to Shunsuke and Tokiko equally accusing each other that - you don't understand what it's like to be a woman/you don't know what it is to be a man, their arguments are frustratingly unresolved, which give them an intense tangibility, to the extent that in the novel Shunsuke suffers physical pain at the things Tokiko says to him, he consults a doctor. Although I struggled to reconcile in places with the way that Shunsuke thinks about women, for instance at the end of the novel when he is looking for a second wife, and to degrees the perception of women within the novel as a whole is one that I'd like to think is something leftover from the old world, despite this Tokiko comes across as an incredibly strong character although her strength disguises a vulnerable and uncertain inner world, in the past we learn that she has had plastic surgery and her teeth strengthened, the fact that she and Shunsuke sleep in separate rooms adds another complex aspect to their married life, which is a taught one but at the same time quite open, Shunsuke ponders whether he should have actually allowed the affair to continue, and confesses that he perhaps regrets his marriage.

Not long after moving into the new house Tokiko discovers a lump in her breast and the novel begins to turn in a completely different direction and tone, events and things said in the past can be viewed and reassessed from the viewpoint of this new perspective, the novel carries a great sense that time is finite and is a constantly moving line crossing the lives of it's characters, pushing the reader unconsciously to contemplate these perspectives. Whilst Tokiko is in hospital the narrative follows the domestic scene continuing at home that Shunsuke struggles to maintain as well as following his inner anguish, at many points he has an almost uncontrollable desire to share his inner world with the external one, the narrative juxtaposes to palpable effect Shunsuke's inner turmoil with that of the indifferent world going on around him. The back of the book has a quote from novelist Shimada Masahiko  that, 'Embracing Family should be read by all American readers', obviously that between the forty odd years since its publication the novels contemporary message has faded somewhat but its has lost nothing in the power of its unflinching humanism.

Embracing Family at Dalkey Archive Press  

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