Akutagawa Prize #158: Hyakunen doro, by Ishii Yūka

Ishii Yūka 石井遊佳Hyakunen doro 百年泥.  Shinchōsha, 2017.

This shared the 158th A-Prize, for late 2017.

Ishii is a first-time author, and at first glance this would appear to be autobiographical, and even perhaps a one-off like Mobu Norio, for example:  someone with an interesting life story who writes it up in an interesting way, but then finds they have nothing more to say.  Whether Ishii will write more is, as yet, unclear, but the book actually doesn’t seem to be that autobiographical.  Even aside from the magical-realism elements (see below), the only similarities appear to be that author, like narrator, is a Japanese woman teaching Japanese in Chennai, India.

The story takes place a couple of days after a once-in-a-century level flood has moved through Chennai, leaving the Adyar River choked with the “hundred year mud” of the title.  The narrative isn’t concerned with the destruction or loss of life, however.  Instead, it focuses on the mud itself, and the mingling and chaos it conjures up.  Basically the whole present-day narrative frame takes place as the narrator tries to cross the river on her way to work, and gets caught up in crowds as seemingly the whole city comes out to see the mud.  As she’s stuck in the crowd she gets caught up in flashbacks, memories, belonging first to her and then, near the end of the story, to other people both from her past and from the crowd around her.

This shifting point of view is part of the magical realism I mentioned.  We get people delivering several-page long monologues in a situation where they couldn’t possibly, and probably aren’t, actually speaking – they’re in quotation marks as if the character is speaking, but they really aren’t, and then the narrator says she’s beginning to be unable to distinguish her own reminiscences from those of other people.  There’s a second aspect to the magical realism connected to these monologues:  language.  The narrator finds, as she arrives at the river, that she can suddenly understand Tamil, which she never could before.

The other notorious example of magical realism in the story, mentioned in all the reviews, is that wealthy commuters have detachable mechanical wings with which they fly to work;  only people of the right wealth and status are permitted to have them, but there’s a lively underground trade in them.  Ishii explains this so matter-of-factly that you’re seriously tempted to go check YouTube to see if this is really a thing and you’ve missed it…

But the more salient (I think) example of magical realism is that the mud keeps producing items from the past of the various reminiscers, including the narrator.  As she arrives at the river she meets one of her students, Devaraj, who’s working off a traffic violation by raking through the mud, and he keeps uncovering items that trigger memories.  One, for example, is a bottle of whiskey with her ex-husband’s name on it that he kept in a bar (in Japan, of course);  this triggers memories of their marriage, and the bar, and how she ended up in Chennai.  Another is a glass case containing a mermaid mummy that she saw at a Buddhist temple as a child in Osaka, which triggers memories of her own mother – who she calls a mermaid, although even on the story level this may be a metaphor for her mother’s nature as a misfit who hardly ever speaks.  Within this reminiscence is embedded another, belonging to a classmate who was similarly silent, and thus bullied at school, and befriended a neighborhood woman who didn’t mind her silence…

Silence is a big theme in this story;  or, rather, the inability to speak.  There’s the surface question of communicating in a foreign language, driven home through a fairly detailed description of how the narrator (with no SLA training at all) tries to teach Japanese to Tamil speakers with English as the language of instruction.  But there’s also the fact that the narrator is characterized by others as someone who barely speaks, and who shows little emotion – this is what her ex accuses her of.  It kind of comes through in the narration, too, where we get a lot of visual detail and life-event texture but not much emotional description.  That may explain some of the choppiness of the narration, too;  it’s as if the parts that would have fleshed out narrative detail with emotional reaction are left out.  All this is in contrast to the miraculous fluency with which the narrator understands all the voices around her by the river, and their lively, quotidian conversations.  We don’t get a reaction to this, but we the readers feel suddenly privileged to understand the texture of Chennai lives from the inside, and can only conclude that the narrator must be feeling the same delight and shock.  (But is she?)

What it all adds up to is not really spelled out.  There is, as I note, plenty of detail about Chennai life;  and yet the story doesn’t seem aimed at simply or even accurately depicting India As It Really Is – the flying executives caution us against taking anything at face value.  And there’s too much focus on the narrator’s own life.  On the other hand it’s not the India Epiphany that you often see in foreigners’ narratives of India, either.  The narrator is too affectless for that.  Rather, the story seems to add up to a kind of exploration of the chaos suggested by the mud, a moshing together of self and other, Japan and India, past and present, fact and fantasy, material and spirit.  I just said it’s not an epiphany story, and it’s not, but there are several gestures toward Buddhism, reincarnation, and karma.  The very first sentence of the story has the narrator observing that she must be a kahōmono 果報者 to have experienced this hundred-year mud having only lived in Chennai for three and a half months, and while at first I read this word in its colloquial meaning of a lucky person (used ironically here), of course the word comes from Buddhist conceptions of karmic cause and effect.  Maybe the mud is the karmic bond between all those separate-but-not-really things that get moshed together in this story;  maybe it’s all an exploration of the narrator’s position in the muddy chaos of her own karma.

It’s a frustrating read at times, but ultimately rewarding.

Edit, March 2019:

After teaching part of this, I came to a new appreciate of it.  Not only does it have everything I described above, but there’s a very subtle, wry humor to the writing that I missed the first time around.  It’s worth remarking on, because it shows a writer totally in control of her tone as well as her surrealistic imagery and convoluted narrative.  Ishii might be one to watch.