Thursday, 20 September 2012

The Twilight Years by Sawako Ariyoshi

The Twilight Years is a novel now forty years old, originally published in 1972 under the title Kokotsu no hito, I've also sometimes seen this novel referred to by it's more literal translation of The Ecstatic ManKokotsu can translate as a loosing of a sense of reality, the jacket description mentions that the novel sold a million copies within a year, which demonstrates the interest the novel garnered. The striking artwork on this edition from Peter Owen is by Louis Mackay, subsequently the novel has also been published by  Kodansha International. Examining the condition and perceptions of the elderly, the novel is set in the mid 1960's and as well as glancing back to the war period, the central character, Akiko, contemplates what will become of the elderly population in the future, she thinks ahead to the year 2000, and goes over the statistical forecast, the spiraling ratio of young and old, the novel can be read as an expose of society's conscious and unconscious attitudes towards the elderly, the central attention of the novel is the Tachibana family, like many Japanese homes the Tachibana's have built a cottage in adjacent land/garden for their grandparents, the household is a three generation home, with Akiko, her husband, Nobutoshi, and their son, Satoshi, still at home studying. Although having hito in the title the novel opens with the unexpected death of the grandmother of the family, as Akiko and the immediate family prepare for the funeral, their grandfather, Shigezo, begins to exhibit some worrying behaviour, the first signs of symptoms, confusedly he believed grandmother was sleeping while in actuality she had died. When Kyoko his daughter arrives for the funeral he fails to recognise her instead he only acknowledges Akiko, as he succumbs to his illness they unconsciously form a relationship close to resembling that of mother and child.
As time passes Shigezo's condition begins to deteriorate, a doctor identifies either senile dementia or melancholia dementia, his symptoms resemble Alzheimer's, the burden of looking after Shigezo seems to be pushed onto Akiko, Nobutoshi works full time and although Akiko works full time as well she ends up being the predominant carer and skipping work to care for him, at first this is done much to her consternation, Akiko too, at first, is seen as part of society that finds the elderly as a hindrance, although her concern begins to outweigh her beleaguered belligerence, to witness this change engages and involves the reader into the gradual moral turnabout of the novel. Told largely from Akiko's perspective the narrative is dotted with revelatory observations and experiences she encounters whilst looking after Shigezo, when taking him to a day centre she is surprisingly told that she is a very caring daughter in law, as many of the other  families who have elderly members there usually show no interest. There are many instances and observations that highlight the suffering of the working woman, both in job and at home, although here it's mainly the latter, the narrative does occasionally come from Nobutoshi's perspective, it's difficult to recall a moment when he shows concern for his wife working hard to look after his father, instead he admonishes her for waking him in the night for help when Shigezo begins to soil himself. Nobutoshi cites as an excuse the fact that Shigezo no longer recognises him, many times thinking that he is a burglar, and calls for the police to be called, another facet for concern of Shigezo's behaviour is that he runs away from home. An instance that illustrates the plight of women is seen when contemplating about when they too will become old and their husbands die, Kyoko admits that 'After all, a woman enjoys the greatest happiness as a widow'. At the end of the novel Akiko's attitude undergoes a transformation befitting the role of a concerned daughter in law, although this seems to emphasize how she stands alone and is pitted against a wall of indifference, which is what the novel conveys very effectively. The novel also witnesses an array of different attitudes from the perspectives of the different family members, Satoshi seeing his grandfather deteriorate pleads with his parents, "Mum, Dad, please don't live this long!",  but at the centre of the novel Akiko is the one whose experiences begin to transform her feelings and attitudes, the novel ends on an almost polemic note.
The Twilight Years, along with Fumiko Enchi's The Waiting Years, (a recent find in a charity shop), is one of those translations that I've been meaning to read for some time, another novel concerning aging that I'm looking forward to reading is Furui Yoshikichi's White Haired Melody, translated by Meredith McKinney. A non-fiction book of interest is the comprehensive looking Faces of Aging: The Lived Experiences of the Elderly in Japan, edited by Yoshiko Matsumoto and published by Stanford University PressThe Twilight Years is translated by Mildred Tahara who also translated Ariyoshi's The River Ki. The Twilight Years is also listed as one of UNESCO's Representative Works. This coming Monday - I think, will be 敬老の日, Keiro no Hei, (Respect for the Aged Day), a recent article in the AJW Asahi reports that nearly one fourth of the Japanese population is 65 or over.   

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