In April of 2011, northern Japan suffered a trio of disasters. A massive offshore earthquake triggered an even bigger tsunami, which immediately caused a nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant. These disasters and the long (still partly unfinished) cleanup after are never far in the background in Yusuke Kimura’s two novellas, Sacred Cesium Ground and Isa’s Deluge (translated by Doug Slaymaker).
In Sacred Cesium Ground, our protagonist gives us a front row seat to one of the more gutting consequences of the three disasters. Because of the catastrophic and wide-reaching radiation contamination, people were told to leave their animals behind when they were evacuated. Some animals starved to death before their owners could return for them. Nishino, our narrator, has heard of a farm called the Fortress of Hope, where a rancher is collecting abandoned cattle instead of putting the animals down per government orders. Nishino has left her unsatisfying and abusive life in Tokyo to volunteer at the Fortress. In Isa’s Deluge, a young man named Shōji begins collecting stories about his notoriously violent uncle Isao (called Isa). The stories and the possibility that he might someday publish a slightly fictionalized version of them keep him going even though his life is nearly as depressing and purpose-less as Nishino’s is. Reading Sacred Cesium Ground and Isa’s Deluge reminded me strongly of Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata in that all three of these stories are about characters who don’t fit, who don’t have the same reactions as other people. Sacred Cesium Ground and Isa’s Deluge, however, pack a bigger emotional punch.
An interesting wrinkle to these stories is revealed in the translator’s afterword. Slaymaker writes that Kimura’s novellas are based closely on the author’s own experiences. The Fortress of Hope is modeled on an actual farm of rescued cows. The stories about Uncle Isa are based on family stories from the author’s own family. These two novellas, however, didn’t strike me as auto fiction. Described purely in terms of plot, these novellas seem relatively simple. What makes these stories complicated is the emotional depth and their commentary on Japanese society and the official response to the disaster. As I read both of them and followed the action, I could also see Nishino and Shōji winding themselves up in frustration, helplessness, sense of misunderstanding, and anger at everything until they snap. Autofictional stories—at least the ones I’ve read before—are heavier on the plot than they are on the character studies.
Slaymaker writes in that same afterword that he struggled to convey the Northern Japanese dialect the characters speak, but I didn’t notice anything too unnatural with his solution of having the characters talk a bit like lower class New Yorkers. The accent doesn’t detract from the emotional struggles of the characters or the unsettlingly detailed descriptions of the tsunami ravaged landscape. I can’t exactly say that I enjoyed reading these novellas, given the subject matter. (Sacred Cesium Ground is particularly wrenching for me.) But I can say that I appreciated them a lot for the way they grapple with the Japanese psyche and the unhealed wounds of April 2011.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 8 January 2019.