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A Japanese Tatie Danielle

January 7, 2011 11 comments

The Hateful Age, by Fumio Niwa. (Japanese title: Iyagarase No Nenrei). Translated in French by L’âge des méchancetés.

Ce qu’elle peut faire de mieux dans son état actuel, c’est mourir vite et rien d’autre. Comment se fait-il qu’elle vive aussi longtemps ? What she can do best in her current state is to die soon and nothing else. How comes that she lives that long?

Funio Niwa (1905-2005) is a Japanese writer. He was already famous in his country in the 1930s but few of his books have been translated in English or in French. I discovered The Hateful Age thanks to the paperback collection Folio 2€. I enjoy this collection as it is an opportunity to discover writers I don’t know through short texts. (about 100 pages) 

The Hateful Age, published in 1947, is a shattering book on old age.

Tokyo, 1947. Umejo is 86 years old and her only daughter died some twenty years ago. Her family left is her three grand-daughters, Senko (43), Sachiko (36) and Ruriko (20). Sachiko’s house in Tokyo has been destroyed during the war and she and her family are sent to live in the country. They rent a two-rooms lodging in a peasant’s house. The village is poor, there is no electricity and they are five persons in their family. Her living conditions do not allow her to take care of Umejo.

Therefore, after living with Sachiko and her husband Minobe, Umejo has been staying at Senko’s house for three months. Senko is married to Itami and has no children. Umejo is a burden for them. She pinches objects in the house, is awake at night and enquires ‘Who’s there?’ any time someone goes to the toilets in the night. Itami cannot stand it anymore and threatens Senko to sleep in his office for the next couple of weeks if Umejo goes on living with them. His words are violent, horrible but he manages to convince Senko that sending her grand-mother away at Sachiko’s is the right thing to do. Here is Senko informing Umejo of their decision:

Vraiment grand-mère, vous êtes un cancer. A cause de vous seule, nous ne pouvons pas vivre en bonnes relations entre sœurs. Vous-même, d’ailleurs, vous n’auriez pas pensé que vous serviriez seulement à empoisonner nos relations en vous laissant aller à vivre trop longtemps.   Really, granny, you are a cancer. Because of you alone, we sisters cannot have a good relationship. By the way, even you wouldn’t have thought that your only role would be to poison our relationship by letting yourself live that long.

What are these words? “letting yourself live that long”? Does it mean that her family expected her to act responsibly towards us and commit suicide? Later in the book, Niwa explains that when a husband dies, his wife’s name is written in advance on the grave and covered with red painting until she dies too. Umejo has been a widow for such a long time that the painting has disappeared. The grand-daughters seem to think Umejo purposely stays alive to annoy them.

So Senko sends Umejo at Sachiko’s house. Send is the right verb, as Umejo is treated like a parcel. The narration of the journey is terrible. Ruriko is designated to bring the old woman to the country house. The village is remote; there is one and a half league from the train station to the village. As Umejo cannot walk, she is attached with ropes on Ruriko’s back, who carries her. The walk between the station and the village is a nightmare. It is so cruel that it is almost unbearable to read.

Although they have little room and little money, Sachiko and Minobe welcome Umejo. She keeps on pinching, yells after the children, wakes them three times per night because she needs to go to the toilets and gets lost in the dark. She starts tearing her clothes, which is a huge problem as fabric is rationed in these post-war years. The reader slowly discovers how ungrateful the grand-daughters are, though Sachiko and Minobe behave better than Senko but also discovers how difficult it can be to live with Umejo. The description of old age is appalling but true-to-life. People are not equal in ageing. Some get sick, lose their mind, some remain spry and witty. Niwa decided to show us the dark side of old age.

This text is purposely brutal to be thought-provoking. How shall the community take care of elderly citizens? Fumio Niwa examines a growing problem for the post WWII Japanese society. Indeed, I’ve read that at that time, Japan has to face a growing population of octogenarians. The custom is that children take care of the old parents. As they live longer and longer, they cause increasing problems in families. Niwa gives an awful example of cohabitation between Umejo and her family to challenge the traditional model coming from Confucianism. He demolishes the cliché of the affectionate grand-mother, cement of the family, kindly bestowing her wisdom on her beloved family. I have to admit I had that cliché in mind too, especially for Japan and China. Niwa thinks families should live separately and promotes the foundation of retirement houses like in America. I’m not familiar with Japanese culture, but this seems quite revolutionary.

I also perceived between the lines that the Japanese society is at a turning point in 1947. The country is occupied by the Americans, who bring Western customs with them. Food and clothes are rationed, consequence of WWII, just as they were in France at that time. The social model is compared to the American one. The way of life is still traditional but is going to change. Niwa’s text tells more about Japanese culture than the Murakami’s books I’ve read. 

A word on the style. Niwa’s prose isn’t really impressive, I wonder if the translation is responsible for that. It’s not easy to translate from Japanese to a Western language as kanjis (Japanese ideograms) convey images as well as ideas. This short-story – or novella? The concept of novella doesn’t exist in French, I never know how to recognise a novella – is emotionally difficult to read but it raises an issue we have to face in our Western societies as well, as people grow older and older.

Ironically, Fumio Niwa developed Alzheimer disease in 1985 and died in 2005. I wonder where he was living during his long illness and who took care of him. As there always seem to be an inner logic in life, I usually prudently avoid criticizing old people, as I don’t know what kind of old lady I shall be.  

PS: The title of that post is a reference to the excellent French film Tatie Danielle by Etienne Chatiliez. In this film, an old aunt terrorises her nephew and his family when she comes to live with them. If you haven’t seen it, you might want to watch it, it’s very good.

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