Monday, 6 August 2012

For All Flesh Is As Grass...

I've read a fair bit of Japanese literature now, with novels by about twenty different authors under my belt (and short stories by a further twenty or thirty), so it's always a little dispiriting to come across a writer that I've never even heard of, let alone tried.  One such writer is Takehiko Fukunaga, author of Flowers of Grass (translated by Royall Tyler), so I was looking forward to my review copy from Dalkey Archive immensely - because, of course, a new writer may just be a favourite writer you haven't experienced yet...

Flowers of Grass begins in a sanatorium outside Tokyo, where the narrator is recovering from a lingering illness.  He lives in a dormitory with several other patients, including Shigeshi Shiomi, an enigmatic man who appears unfazed by the prospect of death.  When Shiomi dies after demanding to undergo an extremely risky operation, the narrator inherits the only things of worth which his room-mate leaves behind - two notebooks, each one detailing a period of happiness in poor Shiomi's life.

We are then transported from the frame into the real narrative of Shiomi's two love stories.  The first takes place just before World War Two and details his allegedly platonic love for Shinobu Fujiki, a younger student at Shiomi's high school.  Shiomi attempts to come to terms with his feelings for the younger boy during a camp with his school archery team, a trip which almost goes horribly wrong.

The second notebook moves on to a time after the war has started, showing Shiomi's troubled relationship with Shinobu's sister, Chieko.  With the prospect of being drafted at any time, Shiomi is desperate to complete the novel he is writing and convince Chieko to commit to him.  Somehow though, events conspire to keep the young lovers from coming together...

Flowers of Grass is a beautiful story, another of those poignant, achingly-sad novels that Japanese literature is so replete with.  There is the usual conflict between a sorry life and a blissful death, with Shiomi willing to undergo a risky operation simply because he no longer sees the point of living.  This has little to do with his condition; rather, the disappointments he has experienced have left him a shell of a man, one who no longer knows how to live.  As he explains to the narrator:
"Illness has nothing to do with it.  Living is something else entirely.  It's a kind of intoxication.  Everything you have inside you -  reason, feeling, knowledge, passion, everything - bursts from you, burning.  That's being alive.  Come to think of it, I haven't experienced that sort of rapture for a long time.  A dizzy rapture, I used to call it.  It's gone, though, and I might as well be dead.  It means nothing by now if my body happens to die too." p.33 (Dalkey Archive, 2012)
Unable to recapture this sense of living, Shiomi is only too happy to give up on life.

Anyone who has more than a passing knowledge of J-Lit may be a little surprised that Shiomi didn't take his own life, as suicide is a common theme in both literature and real life in Japan (the number of famous Japanese writers who ended their own lives is astonishingly high...).  However, this may be explained by the fact that there is a strong Christian element running through Flowers of Grass.  Shiomi, for reasons initially unclear, was once baptised, leaving the narrator (and the reader) to suspect that his insistence on having surgery may have been an indirect suicide attempt, one which shifts the blame onto someone else.

Fukunaga was himself baptised late in life, and it is possible that he is trying to work through his own religious feelings in his novel.  While Shinobu has nothing to do with Christianity, Chieko is a member of a non-church Christian group, and it is faith which comes between her and Shiomi.  She tries to ignore their differences, but eventually she is forced to make a choice between the man she loves and the path she has chosen in life.

Chieko's quest for eternal life then is contrasted with Shiomi's certainty that death is ever-present.  He is unable to ignore the fact that we will all one day die, saying:
"They - no, I should say we - live with death every day, but I can't pretend to see anything heroic in that.  Every one of us humans walks the valley of the shadow of death.  I knew even then, when the spring sunshine of Heda brightened my youth and the scent of cherry blossoms surrounded me, that death had his eye on us all and awaited us down the road.  People just don't grasp that, though.  The wings of death are always fluttering near, today as yesterday, but people go cheerfully about their lives and notice nothing." p.105
The irony is that in this passage, and in the one cited earlier (note the use of the word 'rapture'...), Shiomi's rejection of life and faith is couched in religious terms...

There's a lot more that could be said about this book, particularly in regard to the constant Japanese issue of the struggle between a longing for individuality and an overpowering sense of responsibility to the group (shown both in the sanatorium dormitory and the archery camp), but I think I'll leave that to someone else to discuss.  Hopefully, in the little I've written here, I've convinced you that while Fukunaga is by no means one of Japan's most famous writers, he is at least, on the evidence of Flowers of Grass, a very good one.

A thought I'll leave you with though comes from the bible quotation in the preface, one which gives the novel its title:
"For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass."
1 Peter 1:24
For Shiomi, this is not true - he believes that by leaving something of artistic value behind, his life will become of some worth.  In this sense, perhaps his decline dates not from his illness, or the loss of his chance at love, but from the time he abandons his writing.  It's all a question of when we truly die...