Tuesday, 5 November 2013

The Funeral of A Giraffe - Seven Stories by Tomioka Taeko

The Funeral of A Giraffe is a collection that would be difficult to improve upon, coming with a thorough introduction covering Tomioka Taeko's career as a writer who made the transition from poetry to prose, she also wrote film scripts for Masahiro Shinoda, along with this an author interview continues to explore some of the themes that Tomioka's writings are concerned with. After finishing these stories a good place to turn to could be See You Soon - Poems of Taeko Tomioka, translated by Hiroaki Sato, or perhaps the more recently published novel Building Waves translated by Louise Heal Kawai. Most of these stories are set or centred around the Kansai area, Tomioka was born in Osaka, and some reflect Tomioka's interest in rakugo, a number of the stories open with referencing passages taken from rakugo and in another, a fragment from The Tales of Tono sets the scene, it's interesting to read how Tomioka works these into these narratives which are predominately concerned about the lives of their female protagonists. It's startling to contemplate that these stories first appeared in 1976, they are still imbued with a notable contemporary tone, what with the latest interest at the state of relationships and the sex lives of young Japanese these stories show that perhaps this isn't such a new phenomenon or dilemma as we might be led to believe, in the last story Timetable, the narrative follows a young woman caught between the lives of various men as she endeavours to come to terms with her own feelings and search for her place in the scheme of things. The story reads like a minor epic of contemporary life, initially the narrator stays with, S, a male friend in Paris whose wife is in hospital with T.B, she meets with another expat, an artist friend of S. The narrator learns of the suicide of, R, a friend from the past, and in a similar  structural style to some of the other stories here, the narrator looks back at the events and nature of their relationship. Another man at the centre of this story is Q, who is married with children but is seeing the narrator on and off, both parties seem to be quite non-committal to the affair. The tone of Tomioka's narratives feel very non-judgemental, where empathy falls is pretty much left up to the reader, although in Timetable when Q confesses and questions the narrator, 'Why do I work so hard?, I'm sick and tired of my wife and children', it's a statement that inspires feelings of both slight repulsion and empathy, in Timetable there's a lot of space to make us consider cause and effect. nearing the end of the story the suicidal figure of R surfaces again, and we learn further details of his suicide which hovers somewhere between the forefront and in the distance of this story to remind us of the potential of the end result.

As well as being centred around the emerging lives of young women, a couple of the stories have at their centres elderly women, Happy Birthday follows an unnamed woman who has sold her home and is waiting out her last years in a home for the elderly, the narrative pans out in studying her relationship with the rest of her immediate family, her elderly sister and younger niece, Yoko, who comes to visit. Days of Dear Death is set in a three gen household, beginning with a segment from The Tales of Tono which resembles Ubasute, although instead of waiting on the mountain for death the elderly return to the community and take up work again. Similar to Happy Birthday, Days of Dear Death through examining the family's relationship with Granny there is a subtle examination of the perceptions of the elderly in society at large. Granny swaddles herself in layers of clothes like Jūnihitoe worn by Heian era ladies of court, this is a subtle portrait of the isolation of the elderly, although at times it feels a little like a self imposed withdrawal, but Tomioka's prose works it way between the lines of straightforward appearances and assumptions.

The second story Yesteryear, also opens with a reference to a local rakugo story for its opening, although leaning towards being from the perspective of the wife it follows a family of the Kansai area not long after the war whose father, Junnosuke, turns to giving tea ceremony lessons in a makeshift outbuilding. He travels to Kyoto to buy the finest teas and utencils and to consult with a master, an observation by his wife captures his psychology - 'Junnosuke had not run away from something, as she saw it, but had entered into something'. Junnosuke seems to loose more money than he makes, his wife begins to give sewing lessons to supplement the family's income, Junnosuke appears oblivious to the family's financial predicament, and moves to a small rented building just outside of Kyoto. Tomioka goes for the option of presenting no single message in most of these stories, in Yesteryear there are a number of differing ideals on display, the Yesteryear of the title is the brand name of a particular tea, Junnosuke's behaviour looks like he is wanting to adopt or revert to a lifestyle that might be more in tune with traditional society, when the family is forced to move into Junnosuke's rented house the son observes the earthen floor in the kitchen contrasting it with the fact that most people are installing washing machines in their kitchens, Junnosuke seems to be heading in a contrary direction opposed to accepting the benefits of commercial materialism. A percentage of these stories appear to end quite abruptly, which may give the reader the impression that the story ends before being fully resolved, but these incongruities only reflect the lives of her characters more acutely, in the title story it ends with mother and daughter in the midst of a physical disagreement, in Yesteryear it ends with Junnosuke forcing himself on his wife, which gives the story a different slant, becoming the story of marital subservience and a reaffirmation of the patriarchal structure, as Junnosuke does this in full view of his son, this action seems to be him demonstrating that this is the way things are.

The presence of the patriarchal can be seen vaguely again in A Dog's Eye View when a distant relative re-enters into the life of Chizuko, now married, but Hisae begins to try re-ingratiate himself into her life untapping a landscape of inner turmoil, the narrative of this story looks back over their relationship from Chizuko's perspective, again in a slightly detached way, Hisae is unpleasant but whilst concentrating on Chizuko's feelings the panorama provided in Tomioka's prose allows space to contemplate or speculate as to what has made him the way he is, many of the male characters appear to have an assumed sense of superiority, although more often than not the female characters appear to be much more self assured. Yesterday's Girl is an at times fragile story of Ran-ko and her relationship with her friend Ritsuko, Ran-ko perhaps is the more introverted of the two, Ritsuko is a cabaret dancer, part time translator, who also goes off travelling the hippie trail around India and then to Europe. The lives of the two dispense with the conventional, Ran-ko recalls them kissing after Ritsuko visits with her slightly over the top friend Ruiko, which for Ritsuko we get the impression that it was a casual event, but for Ran-ko this provokes further and deeper thoughts and explorations of her feelings, she feels that their friendship transcends the genders, envisioning the relationship being one similar to a male to male one, these themes appear in Tomioka's poetry as in the poem - Let Me Tell You About Myself. Tomioka's prose has a great space for the speculative in the characters she creates, whose lives are lived parallel to the conventional. The stories are translated by Kyoko Selden and Noriko Mizuta, each chapter comes with numbered explanatory notes.

The Funeral of a Giraffe at M. E Sharpe

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