Friday, 7 February 2014

The Phoenix Tree and Other Stories


The Phoenix Tree and Other Stories collects four stories by Akutagawa Prize winning author Kizaki Satoko - 木崎 さと子, who received the prize in 1985 for her story Ao giri, which is included here translated by Carol A. Flath as The Phoenix Tree. Kizaki had also previously been shortlisted for the prize with her debut story Rasoku - Barefoot, which won the Bungakukai Prize in 1980. Born in 1939 in Changchun, (then under the occupied name of Shinkyō), Kizaki started writing in 1979 at the age of 40 and had previously lived in France and also in the U.S.A for a number of years, nations which feature in the lives of some of the characters in theses stories as well as being the locations of some of their settings. The first story Barefoot sees the narrator, Seiko, returning to Tokyo to live in a house of her Uncle's after having lived in France for some years. As she prepares a meal she hears the names and shouts of politicians canvassing for votes through the window as they drive pass the house, one in particular Narashima Yumiko the communist candidate stands out to her. As Seiko's observations progress she realizes the extent of how she has slipped out of being Japanese, comparing udon with spaghetti, and later when her Uncle visits she forgets that its her place to dote on him, in routine things like preparing a washcloth for him to wipe his hands, on her return, still in a stage of transience she observes that all Japanese faces appear the same to her. The story also sees Seiko recall her relationship with Henri a man she had met in Paris, a hypersensitive man who had come from a rural area who had an inert fear of the city, Henri as well as being an albino was an alcoholic who suffered from epilepsy. A common theme in these stories is that the narrator has been orphaned and has been taken care of or adopted by relatives, the title story has it's main narrator, Mitsue raised by her Aunt, the narratives are often explorations into unknown family histories, in Barefoot Seiko relates how her Uncle's son, Kuniaki, had used her to vent his lusts for a number of years before being married, another of the stories themes is that of the shallowness of appearances, from the smiles on the politicians posters, she imagines them running through the town barefoot or without make up Narashima she visualises as an Esmeralda running barefoot and dishevelled begging for votes with fabricated urgency. Through Seiko's musings she returns to her relationship with Henri and his eventual spiral into suicide and cross examines her feelings of guilt at her involvement with him.

The second story, Flame Trees, is remarkable for the slightness and originality of it's setting, the Hata's - Makiko and her husband, Motoo, have travelled from France to Pasadena, Motoo is a Professor of Plant Physiology, before setting up in their own apartment they stay at the Ide's, a family of second generation Japanese Americans who Motoo had previously stayed with. The story opens with an international meeting of other Professors, two wives of which feature prominently in Makiko's perceptions of the small non American community, Lyudmilla, and Helga, whom like Makiko is pregnant. Flame Trees also sees narratives delving into the past lives of it's protagonists, the Ide's history of being interned during the war and their managing to build a living through building up their farming business is depicted, whilst watching the coverage of the assassination of Kennedy the time period of the story's setting begins to take shape. Through Makiko's observations life in America is slightly disorientating her, slowly the story of her past becomes revealed provoked by observations of the Flame Trees growing in the area, memories of the evacuation of Manchuria at the end of the war, watching her mother die, earlier there is a discussion on the definition of life, of 'it' - 'something like a crimson flame blazing up', this image is subtly juxtaposed in the narrative with the flames and smoke of her mother's cremation rising up. Another aspect to Kizaki's narratives sees her characters trying to fill in the missing portraits of family members from their pasts, these are scenes provoked from everyday observations, her father's disappearance in broad daylight, taken away by the Russian troops, here one minute gone the next, Makiko visualizes the possibility of him being still alive somewhere in a Serbian prison camp, another as the time draws nearer to her giving birth provokes the memory of seeing a foetus as a child in a neighbours home in Manchuria, which leads to her evacuation with her nanny Neiya, and the fear of eligibility of returning to Japan under the one adult one child policy.

Although the shortest story in the collection, being a little close to amounting to twenty pages the third story Mei Hua Lei displays Kizaki's brilliant subtleness at being able to synthesize imagery and metaphor in depicting the predicament of her characters  caught between past, present and potential futures. Ueda is another character whose past is linked to the evacuation of Manchuria at the end of the war, but in Mei Hua Lei sees him returning to the country some years later and has a guide in Mr Feng and translator Xiao - hong. During his trip he picks out souvenirs for his wife and daughter, among these, a scarf, a dried deer's heart, that is valued for it's medicinal properties and also some silverware which Kizaki imbues with metaphor that resonates across the story, along with the deer's heart which later on is visualized by Ueda's daughter as still beating with life. Purchasing the silverware unlocks Ueda's own memories of the evacuation and of his mother, and the seller tells him that it was taken from the Japanese by advancing Russian troops, the seller adds, 'They come and go don't they?. Who knows, maybe this coaster will return to China sometime', with the inclusion of this silverware comes the awareness that it's presence is relating to something much larger, perhaps the nature of the relationship between the two nations and of each of their prosperity. Ueda keeps the silverware hidden in a draw away from Mari and Yasuko, his wife and daughter, the narrative observing of him that - 'he didn't want to expose these things to the eyes of people who didn't know the land of Manchuria'.

The Phoenix Tree is a novella in size, the narrative comes from Mitsue who receives a call from her cousin Shiro announcing that Oba-san is unwell and that she is returning home to the dilapidated wing of the family estate where Mistue lives with her brother Kohei and his wife, Kazumi. Another story that features an extended family which is split between Mitsue and Kohei who were adopted by Oba-san when they were young and Oba-san's natural siblings, Shiro and his sister Haruko, who remains largely absent in the story until nearing the end, who is living in America raising a family. Shiro explains that Oba-san wants the fact of her return to the ancestral home and her illness to be kept secret from the local villagers and that a doctor shouldn't be consulted, Mitsue is awed by Oba-san's courage in facing death unassisted, and slightly fortuitously for Shiro offers to help to nurse her, he returns to Tokyo sooner than expected. Mitsue is described as a bit of a recluse not having ever lived outside of the village, remaining unmarried, she also carries an unsightly scar across her face from a childhood accident. Although she refuses to see a doctor and hasn't had an official diagnosis Oba-san's illness is breast cancer which is in an advanced state. As she struggles to look after Oba-san Mitsue recalls the days of her childhood, of Oba-san struggling with the burden of raising additional children, and also imagining her relationship with her Uncle who had died prematurely through TB, Mitsue envisions rather romantically that her aunt's return is her wanting to die in the same place as that of her husband. In these stories which are informed by the autobiographical, Kizaki has a great ability in creating complex family scenarios where her characters are left to fill in the blanks of the histories of characters now passed, another incident that remains unclear is the circumstance of Mitsue getting her scar, Kohei tells Mitsue that he witnessed Oba-san amidst an accident of spilling hot oil push Haruko clear leaving the oil to spill and scald Mitsue instead, the revelation of the episode leads Mitsue to readdress her feelings towards Oba-san after it was believed that a maid had been to blame. The situation is compounded when it becomes known that it's Oba-san's desire for Mitsue to have plastic surgery to remove the scar, she wants to see Mitsue as she was before the accident, but is it to assuage her guilt?, it remains unclear. The story is full of incidences offering insights into the complex family relationships to one another, there's constant reappraisal of the relationship between Shiro and Haruko vs.  Mitsue and Kohei who have stayed behind remaining in the village as opposed to Shiro and Haruko having successful lives away. Another facet to this is that Mitsue is secretly attracted to Shiro, but these feelings through the events of the story undergo a transformation. The Phoenix Tree of the story's title refers to a sapling planted by Oba-san in ground opposite the house's veranda years before, as the estate is falling further into dilapidation it's possibly the only thing that'll remain, at the end of the story the family wonder what to do with it, a suggestion made is to transplant the tree or perhaps that Kohei will move in and look after it. Perhaps the kanji in the title of the story is different, the reader can't ignore the possibility that Kizaki is using the title with a slight play on words, as giri in Japanese is a term also meaning 'obligation' or the 'burden of obligation', finishing the story the impression left is that this is what is being passed on by Oba-san, or maybe the Phoenix tree or the wakagiri left behind is a symbol of an obligation or duty served. Overall a fascinating collection.

Carol A. Flath's translation of Rasuko and Aogiri won the Japan - U.S Friendship Commission Prize for the Translation of Japanese Literature.                                          

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