Posts Tagged ‘Yuko Tsushima’

Child of Fortune

January 4, 2019

One of my favourite reads of last year was Yuko Tsushima’s Territory of Light, newly translated by Geraldine Harcourt. Luckily Penguin Classics have also released Harcourt’s 1986 translation of Child of Fortune. It, too, tells the story of a divorced mother, Koko, and her daughter, Kayako, though in this case mother and daughter live most if the time separately: Koko in her own apartment, Kayako with her mother’s sister:

“At New Year she had simply moved in – alone – with Koko’s sister and begun going to school from there… – At Auntie’s they don’t make all the children do the stuff you make me do, Mom. When I told them that I clear up after dinner, and wash and iron my own things, and even sew on buttons, they were sorry for me. I was so embarrassed.-“

As with the narrator of Territory of Light, Koko can appear a feckless mother – and this is certainly how her family sees her. Kayako tells her that she visits her once a week because, according to her Aunt, “we can’t let your mother out of our sight or there’s no telling what she’ll get up to next.-“ Kayako has ambitions to go to a private Catholic school rather than a municipal junior high and is studying for the entrance exams. Koko, meanwhile, makes a living teaching piano but has little interest in her work – “though there was a piano in her apartment it was a while since she had even lifted the lid.” Their characters contrast in almost every way: Koko drifts through life whereas Kayako plans for her future; Kayako often appears more mature than Koko who can be annoyingly childish, for example when her daughter comes to visits:

“Close on seven o’clock the doorbell rang. Koko deliberately did not go to the door. The chimes sounded again. Then there was the click of a key in the lock.”

Roles are reversed to the point that Kayako has to tell her mother to have a bath, and then clean the bath tub for her.

Koko’s relationship with her daughter is in danger of further complication when she suspects she has fallen pregnant. The father is an old friend and irregular lover, Osada, who has acted as a go-between between her and her ex-husband in the past. The pregnancy makes her think with regret of a previous lover, Doi, who was very good to Kayako when she was younger, but who returned to his wife when she fell pregnant after Koko has resisted the idea:

“When Doi’s second child was born, Koko had actually welcomed the change at first, turning it into the opportunity she needed to leave him, but before very long she was stricken with a hopeless frustration, until she twisted and moaned in bed; frustration at herself, at having let Doi go, at having failed to take action.”

Now pregnant, she is surprised at her own lack of concern:

“Now, with her belly actually swelling, Koko was so unworried that it was even a letdown.”

Initially she has not intention of telling Osada: “the baby’s paternity was too insignificant to worry about; she was imply going to be producing another child and that was all there was to it.” Though her relationship with Kayako suggests this attitude may be rather cavalier, Koko’s refusal to turn to others is understandable given both their frequent disapproval and concurrent attempts to run her life for her. Her sister consistently undermines any efforts Koko makes to look after Kayako, even offering to adopt her, and when she discovers Koko’s pregnancy, complains it is too late for an abortion. Osada, too, develops his own plans when he finds out without thinking to consult Koko. Koko meanwhile attempts to be true to herself, and in particular the childlike spirit she learned from her disabled brother who died when he was Kayako’s age:

“One thing, though, was certain: she had never betrayed the small child she had been: the child who had pined for her brother in the institution; the child who had watched her mother and sitter resentfully, unable to understand what made them find fault with her grades, her manners, her language… in the long run her choices had always remained true to her childhood self.”

Her desire for independence is to be admired, and perhaps her attitude towards her daughter is more about discouraging her from relying on others than a lack of care. The novel is given depth by Koko’s memories which show her to be a complex and sometimes contradictory character. As in Territory of Light, dreams are also important. A dream of being on a boat, unsure whether she is alone or not, reflects her uncertainty over relationships, sometimes encouraging others to become close, at others isolating herself. Child of Fortune is another rich novel from Tsushima, rejecting any suggestion that life should only be lived one way, capturing the spirit of those who, although uncertain and confused, aim to carve out their own path.

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Territory of Light

May 30, 2018

Yuko Tsushima’s 1979 novel Territory of Light, now translated by Geraldine Harcourt, tells the story of a young woman who is separated from her husband and living alone with her two-year-old daughter. Its optimistic title reflects the new life she begins in her own apartment:

“I crowed to myself that this was the apartment for me. The red floor blazed in the setting sun. The long-closed, empty rooms pulsed with light.”

Even when the apartment floods as the result of a leak in the building’s water tower, it creates something magical in the eyes of the narrator and her daughter:

“Where there should have been a perfectly dry roof, water rippled and sparkled. A great expanse of clear water… That night, I took off my shoes and had a high old time in the roof-top ‘sea’ with my daughter.”

However, the territory of light also suggests an emptiness and her life is far from easy. Loneliness in particular afflicts her. When, looking for her daughter in the park, she comes across another mother she recognises from her daughter’s day-care, begins to imagine a scenario where the two children play together:

“’This is fun, don’t you think?’ the woman would ask me, dropping her voice, and I’d nod vigorously…”

On her daughter’s third birthday her idea of inviting people over, only results in a couple of hurried phone calls on the day to distant friends who have other plans. Once her daughter is asleep, her loneliness drives her to a bar where she gets drunk with another woman, returning home to find her husband waiting for her, appalled at her behaviour. (The other woman’s apartment is later burned down; in a novel where living space is important, this seems a commentary on her inability to provide a home, a fear which haunts the narrator). A homeless woman they greet on the way to the day-care centre also provides a potential future.

Later her loneliness will later see her sleep with one of the fathers from the day-care centre. When, having invited him to her apartment, she spills some ice, she is momentarily angry (“Did it never occur to you to give me a hand?”) but when he goes to leave she pleads with him, “Don’t leave like that. Please stay…” Her need for company is also demonstrated when Sugiyama, a young man her husband tutored, becomes a frequent visitor:

“Considering his age, though, there was always the worry that we’d seen the last of him, that he’d never give those Sundays at my apartment another thought.”

She invites him to stay with her (“Think of it as communal living”) and when he tells her he is not interested and, embarrassed by her request, hangs up the phone, she continues to talk to him while her daughter listens.

Her husband, Fujino, is a frequent if indistinct presence in the novel. The narrator seems torn between wanting their relationship to resume and feeling an anger she finds difficult to repress when she sees or hears from him. Initially she wonders, “Wasn’t there still a chance I’d hear him laugh it all off as a joke tomorrow?” When he phones her at work, however, “I tensed, determined to blame it all on Fujino.” She denies him access to his daughter, arguing that she needs to first adjust to her new life, but:

“What I was really thinking, deep down, was that with time she might forget her father and he might get over it.”

At times, they confront each other physically, as when he finds her drunk having left her daughter in the apartment:

“I scratched his face, pulled his hair, tried to throttle him. I was quickly flung off. Again I hurled myself on top of him and again I was sent flying.”

Yuko makes it difficult for the reader to form a judgement: we are given little indication of why the couple have split up (though there is reference to Fujino living with another woman), and each of them seem to vacillate between reason and rage. Rather than being a novel of taking sides, Yuko’s focus is the year the narrator needs to move on with her life; it is a novel of transition.

Her journey is unconscious as well as conscious, and the narrator’s dreams are an important part of her story:

“In my sleep, I wandered into some dunes. The wind – so strong I couldn’t keep my eyes open – was blasting my whole body with sand. There I was surrounded by sand as far as the eye could see, and all I could do was marvel at the vastness of the dunes.”

There is a temptation to interpret every dream she describes, but this is dangerously reductive. More importantly, her lack of autonomy in her dreams reflects the loss of control she feels in her life, creating a pervasive anxiety which characterises the novel’s atmosphere. Yuko is particularly successful at blending the narrator’s dreamscape into what is a largely domestic novel.

As we are told at the beginning, the novel ends when she moves out of her apartment one year later. The apartment is the transitional year between marriage and divorce, between one identity and another. (That the narrator’s married name is also the name of the owner, and therefore the building, emphasises this connection). Territory of Light is an excellent short novel which captures the movement between one life and another with unvarnished precision, the ‘muddling through’ the year-long ‘epiphany,’ that is typical of lived experience.