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Book Review: Summer of Strangers (and Other Stories) by Masao Yamakawa

4 Jul

“The woman sees herself in the sea. She calls out to that other self.
The sea took you from us, Hiroshi. Then you became one with it…I wonder, if I throw myself into the sea, will I become one with you?”

(Masao Yamakawa, The Gift of Loneliness)

Georges Lacombe, Blue Seascape, Wave Effect, 1893

We are starting this July on the blog with my little review of the short story collection called “Summer of Strangers (And Other Stories)” by the Japanese writer Masao Yamakawa which was recently translated by J.D.Wisgo. I have already written a few book reviews for short stories “The Days and Nights” and “Downfall and Other Stories” by Fumiko Hayashi, both translated by the same translator.

The author of these short stories is the Japanese writer Masao Yamakawa who was born in 1930 in Tokyo. He wrote his university thesis on Jean-Paul Sartre and worked as the editor of the literary magazine “Mita Bungaku” which is interesting because that magazine published famous Japanese authors such as Tanizaki Junichiro and Akutagawa Ryunosuke; I enjoyed the works of both of these writers immensely. Yamakawa’s short story “The Summer Procession” is one of his most well-known. Sadly, Yamakawa died at the age of thirty-four as a result of a traffic accident, but his work is popular in Japan even today. The book contrains seven stories; “The Gift of Loneliness”, “You in a Box”, “Summer of Strangers”, “The Distorted Window”, “The Summer Procession”, “No More Summers”, and “Fireworks of the Day”. Each story is presented both in the English translation and in the original form, that is, in Japanese. I think this would be very fun and useful for someone who was studying Japanese language. It was interesting for me too, I will admit it.

Photo by Mervyn O’Gorman, 1913

As you can see, each story has a title that is delicious and alluring and I found it hard to chose which one to read first! What struck me with these stories is how different they are to each other, how uniquely crafted and individualistic, not following a certain plot-formula or having repetitive, recurring motives. And also, how the stories often take a surprising turn. When I would start reading each story, I always finished reading it and feeling surprised: “whoa, I did not expect that!” That was literally my reaction and that made reading all the more fun. The first story I read was “Summer of Strangers” because the title was very inviting and I love how it contained a story within a story: the main character who lives in a coastal, touristy town is swimming one night and meets a mysterious woman and, fearing that she might intend to commit suicide by drowning, he tells her a tale that his father would tell him. This tale, although affirming the individual’s right to decide whether to live or die, ends up saving the woman’s life and changing her perspective on things.

Edvard Munch, The Lonely Ones (Two People), 1895

The second story I read was “The Gift of Loneliness” because, again, the title made me curious. The story starts with a man and a woman sitting on the beach. We find out they are a husband and a wife, but they are emotionally distant from each other… Winter time is approaching in the story and the cold, raging sea seems to mirror the coldness and turmoils that the couple is experiencing. This image of two people, joint together by love and/or marriage, but feeling distanced from one another instantly brought to mind the famous painting by Edvard Munch called “The Lonely Ones” from 1895. In the painting the man and a woman are standing on the beach, gazing at the sea. The waves crush on to the shore as the two of them stand there in silence, just one step away from each other, and yet emotionally distant. The murmur of the sea, louder than their loneliness, matches the turmoil that rises in their soul. Are they a couple who just had an argument, or two lovers who have, after being drunken with love, now sobered and realised that nothing, not even their love, will spare them the loneliness and feeling of isolation that they experience as individuals…? The mood of the story, at least in the beginning, feels similar and quickly we find out the reason behind the mood: a month ago their four-year old son Hiroshi had died, drowned in that very same sea. Here is a passage from the beginning:

It seems like Hiroshi was everything to you,” the man says, forcing a smile. “But Ryoko, you were my wife to begin with…even before you became Hiroshi’s mother.”

The man seems to be calling out to her, but the wind makes his voice difficult to hear.

The woman does not turn around. Far out in the indigo sea, a faint mist hangs in the air.

The sea churns. Surely Hiroshi has already dissolved into the ocean. A month has already passed since the waves carried off his tiny, four-year-old body. Why did we ever go to the beach in September in the first place…
(…)
The man is calling me again. My husband must be worried.

Husband? Is that really my husband? He’s like a stranger to me, a man I’ve never seen before.

Suddenly the sea screams. A powerful roar. It engulfs her.

The woman sees herself in the sea. She calls out to that other self.

The sea took you from us, Hiroshi. Then you became one with it…I wonder, if I throw myself into the sea, will I become one with you?

“Let’s head back to the hotel soon.”

The man’s hand holds her shoulder tightly. Gazing at her from the side with a cautious look in his eyes, the man’s stiff cheeks force a smile. Silly man. You actually think I would jump from here.

“I’m ok. Let go of me,” the woman says. “If I wanted to die, I would have been dead long ago.”

Through the characters’ conversations and visual imagery, the story beautifully captures the sadness of loosing a child, and, as the title suggests, it brings a thought-pondering idea about loneliness being a gift, giving someone some time and space out of love as a gift.

Tanigami Konan (1879-1928), Dahlia, 1917

First and last pictures here by Magdalena Lutek (Nishe)

“I’ve been looking so long at these pictures of you
That I almost believe that they’re real
I’ve been living so long with my pictures of you
That I almost believe that the pictures are all I can feel”

(The Cure, Pictures of You)

The story that especially surprised me the way it turned out to be is “You in a Box” because at first we are presented with a shy, withdrawn, slightly socially awkward woman whose coyness reaches such levels that she cannot even look a man in the eye, but as the story unfolds we discover that her shy, frightened demeanour hides an entirely different nature; twisted passions and a distrust, a fear of any relationship with people, with men in particular. The story begins with her strolling around park, meeting a stranger – a tourist and taking his picture, but this innocent start mustn’t fool you because things turn deadly very quickly…

I especially found this inner monologue of hers chilling: “Darling, I’m really sorry about killing you…but just deal with it, ok? You see, I’m scared of the living. I can’t predict what they’ll do, and people who are alive will never truly become mine. In this form, you’re very obedient and will never betray me. Now there’s no reason for us to hide things from each other. I’m sure that you aren’t lonely either. Let’s live together like this forever, happily ever after…” While I was reading the story my perception of who is the predator and who I should hate and fear changed almost instantly as the events in the story unfolded.

Even though the story is very short, the character of the woman in it is very psychologically complex and the story left me feeling haunted for days. At first she struck me as a creepy horror film character, but as this sensation subsided, I came to see the woman as a deeply lonely individual and the story shows how intense loneliness, isolation, and distrust of people can lead to harrowing acts of aggresion. In a way, the woman in the story reminded me of the character Etsuko from Yukio Mishima’s novel “Thirst for Love”; she is also a shy, private person but her calm exterior hides rage and an obsessive love which turns deadly.

I enjoyed all the stories in the book, but this post would be too long to mention them all so I just mentioned the ones that struck me the most. All in all, if you love short stories and Japanese literature, I am sure you will enjoy these shorts stories. You can check out the translator’s word on his blog: Self Taught Japanese and Goodreads page.

This book is available here on Amazon.