Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Fujino Chiya: Natsu no yakusoku (1999)

Fujino Chiya 藤野千夜.  Natsu no yakusoku 夏の約束.  Kōdansha, 2000.

This was the co-winner of the 122nd A-Prize, for late 1999.  The other co-winner was Gengetsu 玄月’s Kage no sumika 蔭の棲みか.

Fujino was born in 1962, making her 37 when she won the Prize.  She’d been writing for four or five years.  Also, she was born a man.  I believe she was the first transsexual to win the Akutagawa Prize.  This, of course, created quite a stir in 2000.  She’s still a well-known writer, and I’m a bit surprised she’s not better known in English.

Both the hardback and paperback (I read the latter) printings of “Natsu no yakusoku” bear the French
translation of the title on the cover:  “Une promesse d’été.”  I guess we can translate it into English as “A summer promise,” although “The promise of summer” seems admissible and more evocative…  The promise in question is a vague plan that the main characters have made to go camping once summer comes;  the promise is mentioned by several of them in various scenes, and while neither the camping trip nor the preparations for it form any of the action of the book, still the idea that there’s this fun excursion awaiting them sometime in the near future is significant, thematically.  I’ll spoil it and say they never go, at least not in the summer that arrives in the story;  so this summer promise just hovers there as a vague hope for good times to come, good times that haven’t quite arrived but might yet, someday.

The story is a group portrait of several characters in their 20s living in Tokyo.  The focus shifts between and among them over the course of the novella.  At first it seems like we’ll be following the lives of Maruo and Hikaru, a gay male couple, and seeing them mainly through Maruo’s point of view.  But soon we meet their transgender friend Tamayo and her dog Apollon, and then we follow her to a gathering of her girlfriends, one of whom we later learn knew Hikaru growing up.  Then we meet Maruo’s downstairs neighbor Okano, and learn second-hand of her difficult love life…  There’s not much of a plot, really.  It’s more a series of vignettes as we see these characters and a few others in twos and threes, interacting, relating. 

In some ways the story is a meditation on relationships.  At first blush it seems the only real relationship we see is Maruo’s and Hikaru’s, but that’s almost enough.  It’s a finely drawn partnership, realized through two carefully rendered characters.  Hikaru works for a publisher, which we’re told allows him the freedom to be open about his sexuality, but Maruo is a salaryman, and has to stay closeted.  Most of his coworkers guess, though, and he’s subject to some hazing;  the difficulties of living LGBT in turn-of-the-millennium Tokyo are not foregrounded in the story, but they’re apparent on the edges.  Hikaru wants to move in with Maruo;  they already live near each other and are about as out as they can be in their neighborhood, walking around holding hands, and Hikaru wants to formalize their relationship as much as it can be in 1999.  Maruo is reluctant, and at first we suspect it might be due to the pressures of the closet;  later, though, we begin to wonder if he’s just reluctant to commit to Hikaru to that degree.  He doesn’t cheat, but there’s some interesting chemistry between him and Tamayo that’s barely hinted at. 

Maruo’s and Hikaru’s relationship is reflected/refracted in several other relationships that Fujino slips into the story.  Almost-relationships, I guess one could call them.  Tamayo’s emotional attachment to her dog Apollon is one.  This almost seems comical, or cliché, but it’s the occasion for Tamayo’s comment that to Apollon, Tamayo constitutes 8/10ths of the world.  That’s as close to a statement of the theme of the story as Fujino gets:  the idea that we are each other’s horizons, especially in relationships.  Human beings in relationships define each other’s universes. 

It’s a very pleasant read, the casual, light, uneventful surface disguising the careful craft that Fujino puts into delineating her characters and their situations.  In terms of significance, it’s surely an effort to emphasize the sheer normality of her characters:  Maruo’s easy-going good humor, his problems with his weight, his reluctance to commit, Tamayo’s understated longing for whatever the camping trip represents for her.  There’s a warmth and humanity to these characters that’s hard not to be charmed by.  Since Fujino’s not foregrounding the characters’ sufferings at the hands of straight society (but those sufferings are there!), the story might fall short for a reader who would like a more aggressive defense of these characters’ rights to live as they are.  It’s undeniably well crafted, though, and certainly drew enough attention in 2000.

I believe when this was published in hardback it was alone, but the paperback I read has an omake story in it:  Shufu to kōban 主婦と交番, “Housewife and Police Box.”  This has been translated.  It’s about a housewife named Natsumi and her little girl Mika.  Natsumi’s husband’s job has him living in another city, a common enough pattern in Japan;  he doesn’t appear in the story, so for all intents and purposes Natsumi and Mika are alone.  There’s an upstairs friend of Natsumi’s named Yoshiko, and that’s about it for characters.  The theme is the isolation of the housewife, so the small cast is key. 

This story, too, has a light, even humorous surface.  One day Mika asks why there are no lady cops in police boxes, those little neighborhood police ministations one finds everywhere in Japan.  Natsumi has never thought about it, and from then on becomes mildly obsessed with police boxes.  She scopes out all the ones within walking or bicycling distance of her home, gives the officers stationed at them little nicknames, almost turns into a stalker.  But her obsession is no worse than her daughter’s – the girl becomes so hung up on police boxes that one day she steals the stuffed Piipo mascot from one. 

Why does Natsumi go no farther than she can walk or bicycle?  Because she gets intense motion-sickness when she rides a train.  It’s suggested that this might be a phobia as much as a physical thing, and it’s easy to read it as a metaphor for housewifely desperation, almost agoraphobia.  The thing is, she almost forgets she has it, because her world as a mother has shrunk so much.  But when her daughter wants to tour the National Police Agency HQ, it causes problems.  She has an attack on the elevator at Police HQ.  The whole episode ends in trembling. 

Narrowed horizons, worlds defined by significant others, or perhaps by absence.  It’s a good pair to the title story.