Recently published by Columbia University Press, Ground Zero, Nagasaki - Stories by Yūichi Seirai, (pen name of Nakamura Akitoshi), is translated by Paul Warham, a title selected from the JLPP, the book was originally published as Bakushin back in 2006 and was awarded both the Ito Sei Prize as well as the Tanizaki Prize, the book also inspired a film in 2013 Under the Nagasaki Sky, (trailer). Seirai was born in Nagasaki in 1958 and throughout this collection of six stories two subjects appear as an intertwining backdrop in the lives of the characters he has written, that of the atomic bombing of the city and also of the city's religious history, these appear in the stories to varying degrees and in various perspectives. An aspect to Seirai's writing that becomes apparent is that whilst we read his character's cross examining themselves and their pasts, a subtle symbolism arises. Nails, the opening story is narrated by a father whose son becomes obsessed with the movements of his wife, to the degree that he pays a private detective to watch her even though he himself is with her, the obsession culminates in a tragic accident, which borders on it being premeditated . Throughout the story the son's father contrast's his son's behaviour with that of his distant relatives who were devout believers, and wonders at how the faith has become misaligned. An instance of imagery used in this story is that inside the son's house, the father discovers a room whose walls are filled with hammered in nails, which carries associations with religious imagery, but it also gives a picture into the son's inner psychiatry, which it also could be seen as having a relationship with the persecution of those with religious faith.
This aspect of contrasts is another common theme to Seirai's stories, his characters seem to witness and struggle to reconcile injustices and impasses that are unfolding in their lives and by parallel and degrees the contemporary world, their source, or perhaps their central point of reference is the atomic bombing and of religious persecution, or those who had to hide or disguise their faith. Seirai's narratives are richly imagined, in addition to this he has created a fascinating cast of characters, probably one of the most noticeable here is Shu-chan in the story Stone. An aspect to this story is the sense of uniqueness of it's setting, which takes place in a hotel reception area, Shu-chan is waiting for the appearance of a politician to emerge, who he was friends with from high school days, who Shu-chan refers to as Kyu-chan, the crux of the story however is that the politician is under investigation for corruption after assigning a job to his mistress. Whilst waiting Shu-chan strikes up a conversation with an awaiting reporter, Shirotani, who when realizing that Shu-chan has a history with Kyu-chan becomes interested in his story. Shu-chan is a strange character, he still lives at home with his mother, who is in declining health, and his main wish is to loose his virginity, which escalates as being the main sense of injustice in his life, Shu-chan is obsessed with numbers keeping count of all the women he has fallen in love with, (he falls in love with Shirotani), he also memorizes the plate numbers of cars parked outside a brothel he visited in his past. Shu-chan and Kyu-chan meet, and examine their pasts and presents, assumptions are overturned. In the story Seirai subtly examines the stone like nature in people, of how it's indifference to the world is used as both defence and defiance, later walking by the Urakami River in stones washed up by the river, Shu-chan hears the voices of those persecuted and victims of the bomb cry out.
All of these stories offer penetrating insights into the psychological worlds of their protagonists, in Honey a woman finds herself in a loveless marriage, and follows her as she seduces a young man from a cycle repair shop, the story traces her re-sifting her past and leads up to the point of his hand reaching out to touch her at precisely the same moment as the bomb dropped. In Insects Mitsuko looks back after surviving the bomb, and re-examines a love triangle she had kept hidden for decades at the same time uncovering the nuances of faith and human relationships.
Two stories that seem to stand out in the collection are Shells and the final story Birds, both, (as can be seen in all of the stories), are acutely and vividly imagined. Shells is narrated by Hiroyoshi, a man who displays signs of mental vulnerability, we get the impression that his wife and brother-in law think him delusional, as the story begins to unfold we learn of the passing of his daughter, Sayaka. Another aspect that occurs in the story is of him discovering sea shells in his apartment, which lead him, in a candy trail kind of fashion, out to the beach. We learn that he and Sayaka used to collect shells together, which lends the appearance of the shells a supernatural and spiritual tint, outside he befriends a trash collector, Nagai, out on the beach, as the two talk, Nagai learns of Sayaka's passing and Hiroyoshi learns that Nagai's sister, also passed away, both of them on the same date, August the 10th, the pair recall how Sayaka and Nagai's sister spent time together. Another motif that appears in the story is that of a tsunami that rises up the shoreline which Hiroyoshi initially envisages at the start of the story, is this the source of the shells being left behind after the receding wash?, the appearance of the shells subtly begin to represent evidence of his sanity, and by projection his faith, which he covets at first in front of Nagai waiting for the right moment to share their wider secret with him. The story explores themes of pasts which converge with the present, at the same time displaying powerful imagery, the advancing tsunami, which is jointly imagined in the story, is subtly and distantly juxtaposed with that of a sea of fire after the bomb.
Birds, the final story, is narrated by a writer, now in his sixties, similar to that of the narrator of Insects, who survived the bomb, although both of his parents died leaving blank spaces in his family register which remain for him the source of the enigma of his past and by degrees of his truer current identity, which at one point with memories with his adoptive father also calls into question the nature of his faith. The opening setting of the story is a domestic one which sees him settling down to write, but is disturbed by his wife who hears noises coming from upstairs, possible burglars?. The narrative sees the writer re-examine his past, as well as examining his relationship with his immediate family, his son, daughter and wife, there is a sense of estrangement to the narrative that he has from his past and present. Whilst sifting his past the writer recalls a story describing the returning of egrets carrying the souls of the victims of the bomb. The story ends on a deeply moving note with an emotional reunion of sorts, and as with the rest of the stories in this collection there is a plethora of associations and layers between the lines, the characters of Seirai's fictions find themselves conduiting the gaps between past and present, faith and faithlessness, a remarkably vivid collection.
Ground Zero, Nagasaki - Stories at Columbia University Press
Read the short story Nails at Issuu via CUP
Interview with Seirai Yuichi at the Hiroshima Media Peace Center