Akutagawa Prize #152: Kyūnen mae no inori, by Ono Masatsugu

Ono Masatsugu 小野正嗣Kyūnen mae no inori 九年前の祈り.  Kōdansha, 2014.

This won the 152nd A-Prize, for late 2014.  I’m a little late in reading and discussing it.

The title story is the winner, a hundred-plus page novella.  It’s about a woman named Sanae living in a small fishing town in Kyūshū, a fictionalized version (presumably) of the author’s home area of Ōita.  Sanae is in her early 30s and is a single mother;  her little boy, Kebin (希敏 – presumably a kanji-ization of the Japanese pronunciation of Kevin), is the product of a relationship she had in Tokyo with a Canadian named Frederic, who left her and Kebin.  Sanae subsequently moved back in with her parents in Kyūshū.

Kebin has unspecified problems.  He never seems to talk, and he breaks into uncontrollable crying at unpredictable moments.  The reader most likely concludes that he’s somewhere on the autism spectrum, but neither Ono nor Sanae phrases it like that, and it seems Sanae has never had him diagnosed;  we learn that she avoided his three-year-old checkup, and the Tokyo social worker’s reminders, by moving back home.  To herself (the narration is in the third person, but the narrator’s perspective is Sanae’s) she phrases Kebin’s condition almost as a form of possession – every once in a while he turns into a shredded worm (hikichigirareta mimizu).

Sanae’s relationship with Kebin is one of the things this story is concerned with.  She’s unable to cope, and has avoided getting any professional help.  She’s constantly at the end of her rope, we sense (it’s seldom spelled out), and there are hints that she might have abused him.  It’s not quite clear if she actually pinches or shakes him, or just wants to or fantasizes about it.  Clearly she’s under a great deal of pressure.

Her relationship with her parents is another theme.  Her father, a schoolteacher, is a distant presence who appears mainly as a vaguely sympathetic caretaker of Kebin who is, still, not quite able to deal with him.  Her mother is a dominating presence, judgmental at every turn – we get the sense that Sanae’s inability to get help for Kebin is in large part due to her own feelings of guilt, instilled by her mother, at having done something as unconventional as having a relationship with a foreigner in the first place.  The mother predicted it wouldn’t end well, and seems to accept Kebin’s problems as an inevitable consequence of Sanae’s scandalous life choices.  Sanae seems to more or less accept her mother’s verdict.

The action of the story, such as it is, mostly concerns Sanae taking Kebin to a nearby island to collect shells that local superstition holds have a healing effect.  Sanae’s mother was born on said island.  The idea is not to collect them to help Kebin (because, again, everybody’s in denial about him), but rather to help the son of an old family friend, Mitchan;  Mitchan’s grown son has cancer.  Sanae and her family are planning to visit them in the hospital that afternoon, but the story doesn’t get that far.  Instead we have a long description of the boat trip to the island, Sanae wandering around the island, and the boat trip back.  This journey is something mystical;  while on the island, looking for the right beach, Sanae seems to slip into a dream state in which Mitchan herself is there, and Kebin is gone, or is being held by Mitchan, and then she has a weird experience at a shrine on the beach.  Then when they arrive back on the mainland Kebin almost falls off the boat ramp, and drops the precious shells in the process.

This storyline is intercut with a parallel one from nine years previous, concerning a trip Sanae and some local women made to Montreal.  The village had a JET teacher from Canada who organized a trip to his hometown;  Sanae and a group of older women went.  While on the trip Sanae becomes close to Mitchan (decades older than her), but also meets the JET teacher’s friend Frederic.  It’s through these flashbacks that we learn about Sanae’s past life, but of course it’s not a love story.  The main storyline of the flashback is how, on a subway trip in Montreal, two of their number became separated and while the JET went looking for them the rest, including Sanae and Mitchan, ducked into a church and prayed for them, despite not being Christian.  This storyline too culminates in something vaguely mystical, with the prayer, and both at the end seem to contribute to a sense that Sanae is able to separate herself from her misery – like it’s standing behind her, rather than inhabiting her.  The A-Prize committee also notes this, that the story ends on a hopeful note.

To slip into critical mode, I’m not sure it’s justified.  The story is told in an even more elliptical fashion than is normal for A-Prize type fiction, and this means that both Sanae’s experience on the island in the presence and her experience in the church in the past are left almost entirely unexplained, but more than that they’re left uncogitated-upon.  Sanae is an utterly passive character who seems to stumble into marriage, pregnancy, motherhood, and single motherhood, without trying to understand any of it, and so her experience of mystical comfort is also left un-understood.

The idea seems to be, as with so many writers, to use a passive main character as a way of getting at the environment that creates and conditions (in this case) her.  If that’s the aim, it’s effective, because we get a strong, almost overwhelming sense of the Kyushu village culture that Sanae was raised in.  This comes in the present from her mother and in the past from the village older women who go on the trip to Montreal.  If the mother is an almost villainous figure, the other women seem to be meant as something like comical relief, as we watch their utter inability to deal with their encounter with a foreign culture.  It’s not even about Japan vs. the West – they’re so closed to any culture beyond their own village that it’s clear they’d have the same reactions in Tokyo.

One last point:  Ono’s style.  I found it frustrating that he didn’t want to give us more external-type details about what’s really going on in certain moments.  But his facility with words is impressive.  His “normal” sentences are fairly straightforward but at key moments he’ll reel off a really baroque piece of description or metaphor.  The shredded worm is a typical example.  Really memorable, striking stuff.

The book contains three omake stories (good value for the money!).  The first is called “Umigame no yoru ウミガメの夜” (Night of the sea turtle).  It’s set in the same region as the first:  the Saeki region of Ōita.  It concerns three male friends, college classmates in Tokyo, who have come down for a visit.  The story is told in three sections, each of which takes one of their points of view.  The first is Ippeita, whose father is from Saeki;  his parents are divorced and he hasn’t seen his father since he was a child, but he has vague memories of a summer spent with his grandparents in Saeki.  And now his mother is dying.  As the three friends drive around Ippeita is looking for familiar places and maybe even relatives;  he’s also the only one who understands the local dialect.  The second friend is Tōru, who seems to mostly be comic relief, or at most a bridge between the other two;  he’s from Tokyo, so a total outsider, and spends most of the story drunk and/or asleep.  The third friend is Yūma, who is from Sendai – his family home was devastated by the tsunami.  Yūma has a stutter, and so mostly observes quietely.  It’s mostly unstated, but the Saeki coastline clearly reminds him of the Sendai coastline, and he finds himself thinking about death.  The unifying scene and image is that of a sea turtle that the three friends find on the beach at night.  She has just laid her eggs, and they flip her over and watch her helplessly paddling the air.  It’s cruel, but also a good metaphor for rootlessness, for futile striving, and for slowly approaching death.

The second omake story is called “Omimai お見舞い” (Visiting the sick).  It’s told from the point of view of a middle-aged man named Shudō Toshiya – Toshi, for short.  It’s sort of an afternoon-in-the-life-of story, although as one might expect there are enough flashbacks and ruminations to complicate the narrative line considerably.  Basically all that happens in the present is that he gives rides to a some people in need and visits other people in trouble.  Toshi is the younger son of a wealthy fishing family – they own a bunch of boats and employ a bunch of people.  He works for his brother and considers himself something of a screw-up, not particularly good at anything.  But over the course of the story he proves himself something of a saint.  He’s taking care of a childhood friend and mentor who in adulthood has become a hopeless alcoholic.  He’s looking in on another childhood friend who’s in the hospital with a brain tumor.  On the way back from visiting the friend in the hospital he gives a ride to a pregnant woman who is the foreign wife of a local unemployed man.  At the end of the story he encounters three college kids from Tokyo who desperately need to get back, and drops everything and gives them a ride to the airport.  Of course this is all set in Saeki again, and when he meets the kids we suddenly realize that these stories are connected.  Not only is Ono exploring this single region in depth, he’s telling the story of a single sprawling community by focusing in turn on various of its members.  We realize (although it’s not really confirmed) that the friend in the hospital is the son of Mitchan from the title story, and of course the three college kids are the ones from the second story;  and we get the strong suspicion that the alcoholic friend is the father that one of the college kids has come to find.  There’s even a minor character in the first story that shares Toshi’s surname.  This of course lends all of the stories a richness that they wouldn’t necessarily have individually:  they become parts of a group portrait of small-town Ōita.  Very satisfying.

The fourth story, “Aku no hana 悪の花” (Flowers of evil) is also connected.  It consists almost entirely of a stream of consciousness belonging to (but not narrated by) an old woman named Chiyoko.  There are vestiges of a present-moment narrative, but it’s not easy to figure out what that is, so insistent and undifferentiated are the reminiscences.  Chiyoko is distraught over the illness of Mitchan’s son, who lived next door to her and helped her out in her growing infirmity;  specifically he visited the cemetery daily on her behalf.  We realize that we’ve met Chiyoko before:  the three college kids knocked on her neighbor’s door while looking for Ippeita’s father, and she told them whose house it really was.  Death and mourning rule Chiyoko’s life.  Her brother died in the war.  Her parents died when she was young.  She married a local man, older, whose mother had sent away his first wife for being unable to bear children;  the wife later killed herself.  Chiyoko was blamed by the old-fashioned locals for breaking up the marriage and causing the woman’s suicide, but then Chiyoko herself is sent away when she fails to bear a child (the idea that it could be the man’s fault very pointedly is never mentioned);  Chiyoko outlives her ex-husband and mother-in-law, but in old age comes to see the mother-in-law’s reflection in the mirror, and feel she’s becoming her.  Thoughts of these incidents are interspersed with memories of Mitchan’s son and anxieties over what Chiyoko will do if he doesn’t return, and guilt over what she fantasizes is her responsibility for his illness.  The “flowers of evil” of the title are a different species every time Chiyoko sees them, but when she sees them she always recognizes them as signs of her own guilt and inadequacy.  The last day Mitchan’s son went to the graveyard on her behalf, Chiyoko thinks flowers of evil must have been growing on the grave, and that he must have tried to clear them away and been cursed by them.

This story is closest to the title story in its theme, as it once again explores the consciousness of women in rural Ōita, particularly women who have internalized a misogynistic tradition that oppresses them.  As such it brings the volume to a satisfying close.  But it’s also the story that has most to say about the man whose hospitalization is a key plot point in the first, third, and fourth stories:  Mitchan’s son Taikō.  In interviews the author has mentioned that his older brother was dying at the time he was writing these stories, and it seems to be the common assumption that Ono was writing about that.  Which means that in a sense, Taikō is the main character.  And he’s absent from all of the stories except as an occasional memory, and he’s only intermittently described.  We feel his impact on all these lives, though, because Ono has done such a complete job of evoking the interconnectedness of the community.

It’s a very satisfying book;  much more satisfying in toto than the title story is on its own.  In terms of its place in the literary landscape it’s obviously akin to Tanaka Shinya from a few years back in its patient and uncompromising evocation of a particular locale on the margins of modern Japan.  But Ono’s book is less sensationalistic, and more sociological – more attuned to the way economics and geography shape this community.  One of the strongest A-Prize recipients in years.