KINSHU: AUTUMN BROCADE
By Teru Miyamoto
Translated by Roger K. Thomas
New Directions, $22.95, 224 pages
REVIEWED BY ANNA CHAMBERS
Near the beginning of Teru Miyamoto’s “Kinshu: An Autumn Brocade,” a very “typically Japanese” book seems to wait for us when we find the following: “The whole mountain wasn’t covered with crimson foliage — patches of bright red flowed past on both sides of the gondola, interspersed with evergreens, trees with brown leaves, and ginkgo-like trees with golden leaves … .
“I was intoxicated with the intense blaze of autumn leaves and definitely felt something threatening in it, rather like the quiet, cool blade of a knife. Perhaps our unexpected meeting reawakened my girlish tendency to fantasize.” We are reminded of the delicate Japanese prints that famously awed and influenced Monet and his fellow Impressionists with their finely detailed awareness of man’s environment and their subtle commentary on the fragile balancing act of human life.
Teru Miyamoto, however, does not simply hew to our idea of Japanese art. His characters in “Kinshu” struggle just as much with modernity and its jarring interconnections and disconnections as any character offered by 20th century European literature. Though the characters do express their emotions covertly — we are well aware that these are not frank, effusive Americans — they are less willing to accede to the inevitability of silence or to acquiesce in the carefully balanced tranquility most familiar to us in Japanese fine art. They seek resolution, and resolution comes through the startling — and sudden — explanations of two former spouses, Katsunama Aki and Arima Yasuaki.
Though he has been winning awards in Japan for years (including Japan’s most prestigious literary award, the Akutagawa Prize) and has had several works translated into French, this is Teru Miyamoto’s first book to appear in English. Foreign film aficionados may remember “Maboros,” a 1995 film based on a book by Mr. Miyamoto. “River of Fireflies,” another film, also uses the story from one of his novels. Youthful obsessions with a beautiful girl, suicides of lovers or spouses and grieving mothers are common in his work. We can be grateful that our first chance at his work in English comprises so many of the author’s concerns. New Directions is to be applauded for their characteristically astute choice.
Arima Yasuaki and Katsunama Aki separated a decade before the novel begins, following Yasuaki’s near death in a double suicide attempt by his mistress. As Aki puts it, “The incident was over and done with, but it was I who remained unappeased.” They meet unexpectedly one fall, in a mountain resort town filled with tourists come to see the turning of the leaves. Aki is so overcome by feelings of longing and distress that she hunts down Yasuaki’s address and several months later, writes him a long letter. Their letters tell us their story.
Letters communicate more than the simple events in the lives of their authors. The reality of addressing an individual interlocutor — rather than, say, simply an anonymous audience of readers — introduces all sorts of considerations of manners, relationship and, indeed, ownership, for letters contain an inherent question of whether we are ever owed a response from those to whom we write.
Mr. Miyamoto handles the epistolary novel well, using these considerations to deepen a fairly straightforward plot, and their letters gradually close in on the central problem of the book: Does the clear influence of the past on the present mean that our present changes will affect our future, our karma? Despite their deep longing for resolution, the two characters know from the beginning that their correspondence will one day end. This is, after all, a brocade, a work that follows a predetermined pattern and, once completed, reveals a self-contained meaning.
The book moves from autumn to autumn. Though these two are not old, they must confront the things that have died in their lives before they can move on. Yet, if the autumn metaphor holds true, it is more a matter of fading and lingering regret than death.
And so return emerges as a key theme. We accept the premise of the chance meeting and a return of acquaintance between these two. But once Aki watches her beloved Mozart Caf burn down and be rebuilt and Yasuaki begins to frequent his childhood neighborhood for business — as both struggle to confront old losses — the need to integrate one’s past into one’s present, to acknowledge its influence, becomes central to the book.
An entire review could easily be spent on the symbols in “Kinshu” and there are some lovely ones. There is Aki’s newfound love of Mozart, whose music revealed to her the important insight that “Perhaps living and dying are the same thing” (which she repeats five separate times). There is the mimosa tree in her garden whose leaves flinch when touched. And there are some haunting symbols, mostly on Yasuaki’s side: a cat that brutally toys with a mouse before killing it, beds he cannot fall asleep in.
Occasionally, Mr. Miyamoto belabors his points too much by letting the characters interpret unnecessarily for us, as when Yasuaki writes, “Thinking about these things in various ways, I suddenly realized something: wasn’t I myself both the cat and the mouse?” Perhaps that is their prerogative, as they analyze themselves, but at times the emphasis drags at the story’s movement.
For Yasuaki, the year covered by the letters is one of growing up at last, of taking responsibility for his role in his karma. For Aki, it is more a matter of bringing grieving to a close. It is she who already became aware in the year after their divorce one must live through tragedy, while Yasuaki turned in useless circles of evading responsibility in the form of jobs and female companions.
Halfway through the book the introduction of Reiko, who has the misfortune to be dissolute Yasuaki’s current companion, begins to relieve the tension building between Aki and Yasuaki. Finally, we have a third voice in the book (if only secondhand), a voice more intimately concerned in the outcome of this exchange than even Aki’s father can be. We also glimpse resolution as the two letter writers start to move beyond the wounds of the past into the needs of the present, and begin to take pride in their lives again.
We read foreign novels on several levels. They are read, as any other book, in terms of their literary merit. But they are also perused for hints to the culture that forms their background; here is where the difficulties of reading correctly come in. There are elements of “Kinshu” that clearly reflect Japanese mores.
It is taken as given, seemingly by all the characters, and certainly by the two whose voices we hear, that a certain amount — and a much greater amount than in a Western society — of submissiveness is proper to a wife. Yasuaki can say “Moreover, I recall you being very compliant. And that’s not just flattery; I really mean it,” and apparently not cause Aki to bat an eyelash; she in fact had asked if she had been unappealing.
Yasuaki grows in many ways in the story, but there is no hint that his growing awareness of his responsibility to others will extend to a more loving treatment of women. He may learn to work alongside Reiko instead of simply leeching from her energy, but treat her with true care? It seems unlikely. Such assumptions about relationships between the sexes are jarring and one wishes Mr. Miyamoto were as probing into these habits as he is into his characters’ need for other forms of enlightenment. The characters do not seem more than perfunctorily religious — a fact of life for most modern people — but the events of their lives drive them to examine basic meanings in terms of their Buddhist heritage.
In this work, existential crisis after existential crisis force the characters to question whether one can shape one’s own karma — rather than construct one’s own soul, as a Western reader might have put it. And herein lies the Westerner’s entree into the book as more than an observer of Japanese culture. Mr. Miyamoto’s delicately woven tale of romance, violated and painfully relinquished, provides a satisfying taste of what it means to grapple with fate at the intersection of modernity and tradition.
Anna Chambers is assistant managing editor at The National Interest.