Monday, October 22, 2012

Guttersnipe Bookshelf: Takehiko Fukunaga

Takehiko Fukunaga
Flowers of Grass 

Originally published in Japanese as Kusa no Hana in 1954
English translation by Royall Tyler
Dalkey Archive Press, 2012

I remember reading a book review in the New York Times, by a man who was dismayed to discover that real-life Tokyo is not at all the way it seems in Haruki Murakami’s novels.  Yes, indeed!  

If you are one of the lucky few who chooses to read Flowers of Grass, you may sometimes find it off-putting, the dialogue perhaps a little wooden, the action a little too far removed.  But, if you later visit Japan, you will find evidence of the truth of this book everywhere.  It is a beautiful book, and a vital one to have available in English – but, please be prepared, if you are accustomed to modern American or European novels, it may take some getting used to!

The author, Takehiko Fukunaga, was confined in a tuberculosis sanitarium for seven years.  When he was at last released, he wrote this novel over a period of just a few months.  The translator’s useful afterword says Fukunaga saw this book “as a sort of graduation thesis.”  Indeed, the opening section, which takes place in a sanitarium, is one of the most vivid parts of the book.

The body of the book is a manuscript left behind by a character who has just died on the operating table.  It tells of his passionate love for a brother and sister – and his rejection by them both.  Both brother and sister feel that the narrator’s love is so idealized and soaring that it has nothing to do with them – I promise the reader will agree!

To a non-Japanese speaker, it may seem odd that the characters profess utter devotion to their college archery club, speak in vague terms at the most crucial moments, rhapsodize repeatedly about Chopin, and say that they are so overwhelmed with regret they can hardly go on living – but actually there was nothing they could have done anyway.  Irrashimase!  Welcome to Japan!  This isn’t nearly as catchy as Murakami novel – but it’s the real thing. 

The actions of the book often seem like just a set-up for long pronouncements on the nature of love, Christianity in Japan, and resistance to war.  I found the narrator’s love for the brother far more convincing than his love for the sister – who seems a disembodied ideal even when she is in his arms.  At the same time, thoughtful readers will get a very useful picture of how love is perceived in Japan.

The wonder of the book is that the long philosophical passages are truly beautiful and thought-provoking and exhibit a passion far more convincing than that which drives the love affairs.  A long consideration of Christianity may or may not seem like promising material for a novel – but still I had to catch my breath when the narrator ultimately rejects conventional Christianity and says, “I chose my solitude over God.  The outer darkness seemed a more human place to be.”    

For me, what makes this book most important is its wrenching portrayal of the helplessness Japanese people felt as they waited to be drafted, believed the war to be pointless and wrong, but felt too terrified, isolated and powerless to oppose it.  This book does not seek to excuse that silence but it is nonetheless very moving to see what they were up against.

Although Takehiko Fukunaga was well-known in mid-20th century Japan, this is currently his only novel in print.  I hope that somehow a way will be found to have his other books translated and made available, particularly his last novel, about the bombing of Hiroshima.

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