- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 29, 2004

LONELY WOMAN

By Takako Takahashi

Translated and with an introduction by Maryellen Toman Mori

Columbia University Press, $24.50, 192 pages

REVIEWED BY JANINE BEICHMAN

For a country slightly smaller than California, Japan has a remarkably rich literature. The glories begin with the 11th-century “The Tale of Genji,” usually considered the first novel ever written, and go up to its two modern Nobelists, the novelists Yasunari Kawabata and Kenzaburo Oe.

Though women writers were eclipsed from late medieval times until the end of the l9th century, they have come into their own again since about the 1970s, with Takako Takahashi among the most respected.

Her short story collection “Lonely Woman,” which won Japan’s prestigious Woman’s Literature Prize when first published in 1977, is among her best-known works. Each of its five stories has a strong, often violent, plot: Arson, adultery, crime, suicide, sickness, and war figure prominently.

But instead of being told frontwards, from events, the stories are told inside out, from the strange dream-like mood in which the characters edge into those events. It is almost as if the women in the stories, feeling like strangers to themselves and to everyone else, are spying on their own lives from the shadows.

In “Foxfire,” the heroine Ichiko goes shopping:

“She tossed dried mushrooms, lemons, and green onions into her basket. The poor vegetables were suffocated by the plastic. Price labels had been stuck on each one; they’d been reduced to objects that were powerless except as commodities. It’s like being in a foreign country, Ichiko again thought.”

The vegetables in the supermarket have lost their connection to the earth, just like these women, who have no desire for children or marriage. They are craving something beyond that, which can only be approached alone.

The title story of “Lonely Woman” opens as the heroine, Sakiko, lies in bed, hovering between sleep and waking, hearing herself moan. Then her moan turns into the wail of fire-engine sirens. The elementary school next door has been set on fire, and the police, it turns out, have evidence of arson.

There are two mysteries in this story: Who was the arsonist, and what is his or her relationship to Sakiko? They are solved concurrently, by Sakiko herself, though she does not share her knowledge with the police (and in the interests of not spoiling the story, I won’t share it here either).

We turn the page to begin the second story, and meet a new woman, but one also imprisoned in dreams, even more than Sakiko. Yoko, the heroine of “The Oracle,” is tortured by nightmares suggesting her late husband, who was a model of devotion, was actually constantly unfaithful to her.

For Yoko, writes the author, “It was really hard to resist the spellbinding power of a dream. When she moved her hands to get something or moved her legs to cross the room, the dream clung tenaciously to her. It invaded her living space.”

At one point Yoko looks out the window of her mother-in-law’s house and sees a woman in the house next door staring off into space, like an empty shell, and it strikes her as strange that “she and a total stranger were facing each other in perfect alignment.”

Other details make it clear that the stranger is Sakiko, from the first story, though only we, not Yoko, realize this.

One feels a kind of satisfaction as pieces of the puzzle seem to fall into place. But the sense of emerging order is deceptive. The mystery with which the story begins — in this case, whether or not Yoko’s husband was unfaithful — is never solved, and Yoko and Sakiko never meet. All the stories begin as mysteries, but one mystery is solved only to be enfolded in another, which again will be enfolded in still another, like a house of mirrors.

It is a fluid, liminal world, in which opposites turn into one another and become indistinguishable. Flesh and flowers merge, “[h]er body turning the pink color of the blossoms.”

For Ruriko, the heroine of the final story, memory, or time, rolls backward “far, far into her past” and she seems to see herself from a distance, “sprinting, as if on stepping-stones, across the days of [her] own past that stretched into infinity, and entering the twilight before she was born.”

“A human being is like a haunted house,” writes the author, and certainly we become privy to the heroines’ worst fears, obsessive dreams, cruel fantasies.

Yet all this is grounded in a dense thicket of incident, inventive plots and lovingly detailed depictions of real life. Rather than feeling shocked, one feels in the presence of the casual grace of a spider throwing out its threads to catch on a branch, or a silkworm unwinding its cocoon.

Takako Takahashi was born in 1932 in Kyoto, to cultured, well-off parents, and graduated from prestigious Kyoto University with a degree in French literature. Kyoto is a bastion of traditional Japanese mores, and, much as the author loved her Kyoto-born husband, who supported her literary aspirations, she found the antediluvian and male-centered ways of Kyoto society suffocating.

Her career as a writer did not begin to take off until she was able to move to the Tokyo area in her early thirties. After her husband’s early death, she converted to Catholicism and moved to France, where she lived for eight years, at one time as a nun. She is not exactly the person one would expect to find behind such stories.

Maryellen Toman Mori, who has deftly and elegantly translated the stories in this volume and added an illuminating introduction, tells us that all of these stories are also included in the author’s four-volume self-selected literary works, and that the author chose and arranged the works in that set “to reflect the development of her spiritual outlook.”

Having read the often-grotesque stories, with their strange, sometimes violent women, one wonders what they could have to do with religious spirituality. Until, that is, one comes upon this quotation from Takako Takahashi herself:

“Critics often complain that I portray only introverted characters. Apparently this means characters who are withdrawn into madness or delusion, and who make no attempt to communicate with others …

“I want to make it clear here that I intentionally depict such characters … Because every human being has a place that he can’t communicate, and that others have no way of knowing; this ultimate solitude that all humans endure is, I think, the key point of human existence …

“Moreover, I’ve come to think that it is in the depths of a person’s soul, the place that another person has no way of knowing, that God reveals himself.”

Janine Beichman is a professor and translator of Japanese literature who lives in Japan. Her most recent book is “Embracing the Firebird: Yosano Akiko and the Birth of the Female Voice in Modern Japanese Poetry” (University of Hawai’i Press, 2002).

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