Thursday Book; A saga of Japan's century

FOR A thousand years, the literature of Japan has excelled at expressing the impermanence and fragility of life - mono no aware - or, as the Romans had it, lacrimae rerum. It has also, in keeping with the strenuous principles of Japanese art and design, excelled at creating surfaces of disarming yet ambiguous simplicity. From The Tale of Genji through centuries of haiku to the novels of Yasunari Kawabata, Japanese writers have encouraged the obvious and the recondite to tease and mock each other, just as they have sought an apotheosis of their formidable technique in the deliberate arbitrariness of a single brushstroke.

The cost of this has been a disinclination to develop a commensurate sense of narrative, at least to the same high pitch as the literatures of the West. Consider, for example, the narrative banalities of an author such as Yukio Mishima. Only in the best of Japanese cinema is that old triumvirate of a beginning, a middle and an end successfully negotiated, and then usually through a series of loops and convoluted withdrawals. Yet, for anyone who is willing to test unfamiliar waters, this shortcoming is a gain. What Japanese literature habitually offers is an inundation of the minutely sensuous, suggesting that the truest narratives may indeed be those that are nebulous.

These may seem heady comments to preface a review of a family memoir, so dramatised that it reads like a novel, and written in English by a not-so-young Japanese expatriate. But Ruri Pilgrim's book does strike me as uncommonly accomplished. It returned me, with startling ease, to the concerns of a literature I first learned to value reading The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon some 25 years ago. It also resolved some, at least, of the difficulties associated with combining a Japanese sensibility with the demands of Western story-telling.

Subtitled "Three Generations of a Japanese Family", this is a saga that stretches from the beginning of the century to an undefined point in the postwar reconstruction. Two clans, living in lower Honshu and connected by marriage, furnish a gallery of discreetly differentiated characters.

The Miwa are established landowners, the Shirai only a couple of rungs down the ladder. Both can claim samurai forbears, and the tranquillity of their rural existence is already dislodged when the book begins. At first, a new railway line offers only advantages in the struggle to retain status. It becomes so much easier for sons to be sent to smart universities in Tokyo. Already it is felt that, to survive, the gentry must turn professional.

But in time the railways become engines of destruction. The central character, Haruko, a granddaughter of the two clan chiefs, is posted with her engineer husband to Manchuria following the Japanese occupation. They are ordinary citizens, and bear no responsibility for the atrocities committed in northern China. Rather, like thousands of others, they have been gulled by imperial hubris.

When the war ends, they become targets for Russian as well as Chinese reprisals. In a memorable passage, a cousin and her children are ambushed on a refugee train. And when, thanks to the belated compassion of America, Haruko's family does return to Japan, there is little to cheer. In Tokyo they must eke out a minimal existence in an impromptu shack.

There is presently a vogue for family memoirs written by emigree oriental ladies who have somehow fallen on their feet. In an afterword, Pilgrim concedes that hers is "a story based on my mother's life". But this is no run-of-the-mill me-mail from the mangled ancestral heart. Rather, it is an immaculately articulated evaluation of deep-seated cultural instincts and habits, under pressure from within as well without. If, on a documentary level, there is much to absorb, and sometimes disturb, Pilgrim also offers an alternative, women's view of history.

American bombs may have destroyed Japan's soul, but they also destroyed a feudal family law. It is too late for Haruko, perhaps, but, the inference is, not too late for her own daughters.

I don't think Fish of the Seto Inland Sea can or should be identified as a feminist work, even though its male protagonists are often shadows whose primary duty is to provide, and even though, towards the end, there is a near-epiphany as four generations of females are at last reunited in the original deep countryside. Pilgrim's understanding of the human plight is wider than that.

The latent sadness of her account is also governed by the deaths of her men - two of them, the brightest and best, not from war but TB. In this, as in many other aspects, there is an acute balance between what Ruri Pilgrim does and does not say. I know, as someone married to a Japanese, that I shall remember this book.