Fukushima shad­ows di­verse collection

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Delia Fal­coner

THE stun­ning cover of Granta: Ja­pan fea­tures the gleam­ing crest of Mount Fuji re­flect­ing a ten­der dusk sky. It’s only on closer in­spec­tion that the moun­tain re­veals it­self as skil­fully sculpted alu­minium foil; and it’s only on read­ing pho­tog­ra­pher Yuji Ha­mada’s short ac­count of his se­ries Pri­mal Moun­tain, fea­tured within, that one learns that he shot his Fu­jiyama against the chang­ing Tokyo sky. Ha­mada writes that his in­ten­tion was to cap­ture the feel of Ja­pan af­ter the earthquake of 2011. “The in­for­ma­tion that was broad­cast by the me­dia, the in­for­ma­tion that we re­ceived didn’t match up to the re­al­ity that was be­fore our eyes.”

Eeri­ness and beauty dis­tin­guishes much of the work in this spe­cial is­sue — pub­lished si­mul­ta­ne­ously in Ja­panese and English — of the long­stand­ing Bri­tish lit­er­ary mag­a­zine, fea­tur­ing writ­ing and art by Ja­panese con­trib­u­tors who are largely un­known in the West, along­side a very hip list of in­ter­na­tion­als. This in­cludes the Bri­tish au­thors David ( Cloud At­las) Mitchell, cult crime au­thor David Peace (au­thor of the Red Rid­ing Quar­tet and Tokyo Year Zero), and long-term Ja­pan res­i­dent Pico Iyer; Seoul-based Colom­bian au­thor An­dres Felipe Solano; and from North Amer­ica, Re­becca Sol­nit, Adam John­son ( The Or­phan Mas­ter’s Son), prac­tis­ing Zen Bud­dhist priest Ruth Ozeki (whose Tale for the Time Be­ing won of this year’s Na­tional Book Crit­ics Cir­cle Award), and young lit­er­ary sen­sa­tion, Tai­wan-born Tao Lin. (It’s a great line-up, though my per­sonal wish list would have in­cluded Yoko Ogawa, whose fab­u­lously dark nov­els have been gain­ing a Western fol­low­ing; and Ja­pan-born Bel­gian nov­el­ist Amelie Nothomb, whose novella Fear and Loathing is one of the sharpest in­ter­ven­tions I’ve read into Western fan­tasies of mak­ing a life in Ja­pan).

It’s no sur­prise that about a third of these pieces ref­er­ence the dev­as­tat­ing 2011 earthquake, tidal wave and re­sult­ing melt­downs at the Fukushima Dai­ichi nu­clear power plant. In play­wright and nov­el­ist Toshiki Okada’s coolly el­e­gant Break­fast, a hus­band and his es­tranged wife re­unite for a few hours in Tokyo. Her re­fusal to live again in this “city of zom­bies”, only 250km from Fukushima, stands in for a host of mar­i­tal trou­bles — and for a na­tional sense of loss. In Vari­a­tions on a Theme by Mis­ter Donut, Mitchell uses a typ­i­cally kalei­do­scopic range of view­points to also cre­ate a mini-por­trait of life in post-Fukushima Tokyo. One small in­ci­dent of a crazed old man’s be­hav­iour cre­ates a kind of rip­pling strange­ness that touches the lives around him, in­clud­ing that of a wait­ress keep­ing her sur­vival of the melt­down se­cret.

Among my favourites is the del­i­cate es­say, Granta 127: Ja­pan Granta, 272pp, $24.99 Blue Moon by Hiromi Kawakami, who has ap­peared re­cently on the Western radar; Strange Weather in Tokyo, her des­per­ately sad story of a lonely woman’s af­fair with her much older ex-teacher, was short­listed this year — along­side Ogawa’s Re­venge — for the In­de­pen­dent For­eign Fic­tion Prize. (Has any lit­er­a­ture, I won­der, plumbed lone­li­ness as ex­pertly as Ja­pan’s?) Here she tells the story of pass­ing through the shadow of an al­most-cer­tain pan­cre­atic cancer di­ag­no­sis. Re­flec­tion on life’s fragility is a cen­tral trope of Ja­panese writ­ing but here she gen­tly ties her ex­pe­ri­ence to the dis­as­ter, not­ing that it was then she first heard “bec­querels”, the term used in her med­i­cal tests.

Per­haps more sur­pris­ingly, there’s lit­tle hint of re­li­gion or the su­per­nat­u­ral in these con­tri­bu­tions, given re­ports, such as Richard Lloyd Parry’s ex­tra­or­di­nary re­cent es­say in the Lon­don Re­view of Books, re­count­ing mass haunt­ings and the grief work un­der­taken by Bud­dhist priests in the To­hoku re­gion. Only Sol­nit puts a foot in this ter­ri­tory (lit­er­ally) in her very at­mo­spheric ac­count of vis­it­ing Ky­oto’s Fushimi Inari shrine af­ter a tour of the dev­as­tated re­gion, which cap­tures an al­ter­nate sense of time within the steep pas­sages of or­ange torii, or sa­cred gates, wind­ing up the moun­tain: “I had the im­pres­sion mid­way through the hours I spent wan­der­ing, that time it­self had be­come vis­i­ble, that ev­ery mo­ment of my life I was pass­ing through or­ange gates, al­ways had been,

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