Sunday, 28 July 2013

'The Name of the Flower' by Kuniko Mukoda (Review)

The July theme for the Japanese Literature Challenge 7 is short stories, so it was off to the shelves to see if I had anything to fit this criterion.  As I rummaged through my ever-expanding J-Lit section, I did manage to find a couple of unread anthologies, but they were a little long (and after recently finishing a 1000-page German-language classic, I was in the mood for something a touch lighter...).  Finally, I stumbled across the perfect choice, the book you see displayed on the left of the page.  What makes my selection all the more apt is that I received it as a gift from Bellezza herself for my efforts during January in Japan:)

Kuniko Mukoda was a television screen-writer, essayist and short-story writer, and The Name of the Flower (translated by Tomone Matsumoto, published by Stone Bridge Press) is a collection containing thirteen assorted tales from various original works.  It's a short book, running to just 150 pages, and it makes for fairly easy reading.  However, it's also well written, with keen observations on Japanese society in every piece.

The stories all focus on married life, from the viewpoint of both husband and wife.  Infidelity (traditionally tolerated in Japan, especially for husbands) is the major theme here, and most of the stories begin with a snap-shot of a domestic scene which slowly expands to include the shadow of betrayal lurking in the corner.  In a society where marriages were largely arranged (certainly at the time the stories were written), marital bliss seems hard to come by; in fact, marital indifference seems to be regarded as a relative success round these parts...

Many of Mukoda's female protagonists are betrayed by their husbands.  In the title story, 'The Name of the Flower', a wife realises that her husband has been using her, allowing her to help him become more cultivated so that he can attract other women.  In another story, 'I Doubt It', a man plays the dutiful mourner at his father's funeral:
"Now he was chief mourner.  Perhaps it was wrong to bask in this self-satisfied respectability, having just lost a father, but that was how he felt.  The general-affairs section of his company came out in force and arranged the whole program - the ceremony at the funeral altar, the wake, and the ritual farewell to the deceased.  It all reflected Shiozawa's position.  Those relatives he was not ashamed of came, and his friends paid their condolence visits.  He felt a twinge of guilt as he displayed the appropriate grief like an actor, but he told himself not to be concerned because every important occasion in life called for this kind of performance."
p.33, 'I Doubt It' (Stone Bridge Press, 2002)
However, his honest facade hides a multitude of secrets, involving extra-marital affairs and blackmail...

Before anyone gets too angry at Japanese men though, it must be said that the women are even worse.  The central character of 'The Otter' is an old man recovering from a stroke, and while his wife seems cheerful and supportive, she is actually scheming to sell the house from under him.  In 'The Window', a man remembers his mother's affairs, humiliated by the way his father was constantly cuckolded.  Now he believes that her genes have resurfaced in his own daughter, and he's afraid of the consequences.

Quite apart from the constant affairs, there are other consequences of these unhappy marriages, stories of two strangers living together.  In 'The Fake Egg', a woman who can't get pregnant wonders why she's even with her husband, while the protagonist in 'Ears', a man left alone at home on a rare sick day, attempts to resist the temptation to search the house for dirty laundry of a rather personal nature.  Trust is in short supply in The Name of the Flower, and most of the relationships appear to be those strictly of convenience.

The book says a lot about personal relationships, but Mukoda also opens a wider window into Japanese society, where conventions are markedly different to those of the west.  There is a strict adherence to roles within the work hierarchy, something the reader sees repeatedly in the pieces here.  Examples include the traditional visits by work colleagues to the funeral in 'I Doubt It' and the rather unorthodox (to western eyes) use of a work subordinate as a chauffeur (and lackey!) in 'Triangular Chop'.

I lived in Japan for three years (many, many moons ago...), and I loved the little touches which reminded me of my time there.  Characters eat noodles, fish and rice for breakfast, newspaper agents and money collectors stroll into houses and shout out as if they're part of the family; salarymen work (and drink) so much that they never see their house in daylight (as is the case in 'The Window') - oh, and, of course, there's the casual sexism:
"At last Makiko had heard what she was waiting for.  The real reason Makiko had decided to marry Tatsuo was her age - she was twenty-four." (p.102, 'Triangular Chop')
Yep, women, like Christmas cakes (as the story goes), are no good after the twenty-fifth... At this point, my female readers may like to take a deep breath and recall that these stories were written in the early 80s.  I'm sure things have changed slightly since then...

There's nothing too deep here, but The Name of the Flower is full of great sketches exploring Japanese marriage and offering a fascinating insight into Japanese society.  Tomone Matsumoto provides an excellent, smooth translation too, something that is not as common as I'd like in J-Lit.  Anyone wanting to explore the domestic side of Japanese life will enjoy this collection a lot - arigato Bellezza :)