The Fox and Dr. Shimamura, by Christine Wunnicke

It’s a remarkable coincidence that I finished reading The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down not too long before I read The Fox and Dr. Shimamura, by Christine Wunnicke and translated by Philip Boehm. Both books take place in the intersection of Western medicine and traditional folk medicine. This time, the story takes place more than a century ago, in Japan, France, and Germany. The titular Dr. Shimamura is caught looking for ways to heal his patients and himself from a position square in the middle of that intersection. Even more than The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, The Fox and Dr. Shimamura brilliantly shows us that the two systems of medicine (at least at the turn of the twentieth century) are not too different from each other.

This short novel drifts back and forth through time from Shimamura’s present to his past. In 1922, in Japan, Dr. Shimamura—retired neurologist—is not doing well. His lifelong fever and neurosis has taken a toll on the poor man. His wife, mother, mother-in-law, and a maid care for him as he whiles away the days lost in his memories. Those memories (which we learn are not always accurate) center on a few critical years around 1890 and 1891, which he was sent by his superior to a remote region in Japan with an epidemic of women possessed by kitsune, fox spirits. His life was never the same after. The time switches and Dr. Shimamura’s mental state are very well translated by Boehm. Even though there are many times when it isn’t ways easy to tell what’s true, I felt like everything was written with brilliant clarity.

Dr. Shimamura believes that he cured the possessed women by taking their foxes into himself. Though he believes firmly in the rationality of neurology and psychology, Shimamura also feels fox spirits inside himself. Sometimes they appear in hernia-like swellings. Most of the time, his possession manifests as a constant, slight fever and an attractiveness to women and animals. After his experiences with the fox women, Dr. Shimamura bolts for Paris, then Berlin. Ostensibly, he’s there to collect information about new techniques and ideas in neurology, but he drifts. His faith in neurology is shaken when he meets Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot at Paris’ Hôpital Salpêtrière, who is in the middle of an epidemic of hysteria. Hysteria looks an awful lot like kitsune-possession in Japan and Dr. Shimamura is completely shaken. It’s only after a series of meetings with Dr. Josef Breuer (Freud’s mentor) that he finds some equilibrium.

Kuzunoha casting a fox shadow, by Utagawa Kuniyoshi. (Image via Wikicommons)

Unlike Dr. Shimamura, I was fascinated by the parallels between hysteria and fox-possession. Both “conditions” only affect women. They involve uncontrollable emotion and physical contortions. There is no real “cure” and there are a lot of doubt about whether it’s all real or not. Some people dismiss it as attention-seeking behavior. Other people see it sympathetically and seriously. Reading about both conditions exposed my own prejudices. I completely reject the idea of hysteria as medicalization of women’s psychology, a means of controlling women’s emotions in a patriarchal society. On the other hand, I have a more open idea about fox-possession because I want to know more about the cultural context. Dr. Shimamura knows a bit more about kitsune-possession because he’s Japanese, but he doesn’t really see a difference between the two; he sees them both either as something fabricated or something masking an underlying emotional trauma.

At first, the tone of The Fox and Dr. Shimamura led me to think that this book would be a tale of arch silliness. There are a few gentle jokes at Shimamura and some cutting snarkiness about the French neurologists he meets. The archness never completely dissipates, but the tone of the entire book changes when Dr. Shimamura is dispatched to see the fox women. The more I read this book, the more I loved it—especially in light of reading The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. This book is strange and intelligent and melancholy and funny. It’s an amazing tale.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.

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