Archive for the ‘Yoshimura Akira’ Category

You’ll be on probation your entire life

March 9, 2014 17 comments

On Parole by Akira Yoshimura 1988. French title: Liberté conditionnelle. Translated from the Japanese by Rose-Marie Makino-Fayolle.

I intended to read On Parole for Tony’s January in Japan  but I didn’t finish it on time and February flew by and the billet is still to write. Oh, well, c’est la vie!

On Parole is my second book by Akira Yoshimura. I’ve already read La Jeune Fille suppliciée sur une étagère / Le Sourire de pierre which left me perplexed but certain to have met with a great writer, which On Parole confirms.

Yoshimura_On_ParoleShiro Kikutani has been in prison for fifteen years when he’s released on parole. The novel starts with Kukutani’s departure from prison. Kikutani has been released because of his good conduct but also thanks to Akiyama who is willing to hire him when he goes out. So, it is all set for Kikutani: he will work at Akiyama’s chicken farm. During the first months, Kikytani is under the responsibility of Kiyoura, who runs a free home for ex-convicts. Kiyoura takes Kikutani under his wing to help him readapt to life outside of prison. They go shopping, they take the bus and the train and later he assists him with his search for an apartment. After Kikutani has left the ex-convict home for his own apartment, he’s transferred from Kiyoura’s care to Takebayashi’s. Takebayashi is doing pro bono work as an ex-convict counsellor and Kikutani must visit him regularly at home. In French on parole is liberté conditionnelle or conditional freedom. We also use liberté surveillée for probation. Literally, it means freedom under surveillance. I think it reflects well Kikutani’s position in life. His freedom is conditional: he must respect the rules of probation.

We are in Kikutani’s mind and we discover what brought him to prison in the first place. He walked into his wife sleeping with someone else and he killed her on the spot, wounded her lover and killed the lover’s mother by setting the house on fire. We follow Kikutani through his journey back to normal life. Except his life isn’t normal. He’s on parole for life as he has been sentenced to life imprisonment. He has to visit Takebayashi, can’t leave Tokyo without his consent and must report regularly to the authorities. Kiyoura explains to him that since the longest sentence possible is twenty years of imprisonment, if he behaves properly for ten years, he can ask for grace and be totally free again. Although Kikutani is grateful to be out of prison, he also resents that his freedom is not full.

In the beginning, his everyday life is a struggle. Yoshimura describes well how even the smallest tasks are a challenge. For example, Kiyoura recommends that he chooses a low cost hairdresser because they work quicker and are less likely to engage him into small talk. And small talk and banal questions put Kikutani in a spot. Work at the chicken farm is tough but Kikutani holds on and get used to his new schedule and new environment. His body has to readapt to softer conditions: there is no central heating in prison and he’s used to marching instead of walking. Life has changed outside and he’s a bit frightened by crowds everywhere.

Kikutani is lonely. His brother avoids him, his parents are dead and he has lost his former friends. He can’t go back to his home town. He used to be a teacher there and the scandal was too big for him to move back there. He stays alone with his thoughts and doesn’t share anything too personal with Takebayashi either. We realise that he’s been released but he hasn’t atoned for his actions and he still doesn’t regret killing his wife. He’s sorry for the lover’s mother but not for his reaction upon finding his wife in her lover’s arms.

Les longs mois qu’il avait passés en prison à lutter contre l’horrible souvenir et ruminer l’idée que son acte était inévitable avaient exacerbé ses sentiments. Le juge qui avait prononcé la sentence devait compter sur son incarcération pour qu’il regrette son geste, mais il ne regrettait rien, bien au contraire. Cependant, le temps avait adouci ses souvenirs en les estompant, de sorte qu’il ne s’énervait pratiquement plus jamais. C’était le seul soulagement qu’il lui était donné de ressentir, et il ne voulait pas remuer tout cela maintenant. The long months he has spent in prison, fighting against horrible memories and brooding over the idea that his deed had been inevitable had sharpened his feelings. The judge who had sentenced him probably expected that his being in prison would make him regret his bad actions, but he didn’t regret anything, quite the opposite. However, time had soothed his memories by blurring them and now he hardly ever got angry anymore. It was the only relief he could experience and he didn’t want to stir all this now.My translation from the French.Please don’t judge Yoshimura’s style upon this.  

From society’s point of view, it’s a bit chilling. The system has him under surveillance but he never gets real counselling. He’s on the loose and he’s not reformed. Although I acknowledged his struggle, I never really empathised with him. There’s something cold in this man and I felt apprehensive, wondering what kind of drama he was heading to. Through Kikutani’s individual story, I also had the feeling that Yoshimura was criticising a system which seems to coach ex-convicts very well but doesn’t in the end because it doesn’t take their mental state of mind into consideration. They take practicalities into account and the fact that they are estranged from society but they assume that calm and hardworking means well-balanced.

Yoshimura’s style is precise, not much adorned and leaves us with a good vision of Kikutani’s routine and state-of-mind. The construction of the novel is excellent, from one chapter to the other, we discover Kikutani’s past, his thoughts and the net of surveillance set by the Japanese State. We also see the tempest of emotions brewing under his calm composure and I was looking forward to know the ending. On Parole shows that the border between Noir and literary fiction is a thin one, at least for me. We have the same ingredients as in a Noir novel: a murder, a man in a struggling position, fighting against his past and trying to start anew. His wife proved to be his femme fatale. There’s also a feeling of doom.

On Parole is a multi-facetted book and I can only recommend it.

Two short stories by Akira Yoshimura

September 3, 2012 29 comments

Shojo Kakei (1959) and Ishi no Bisho (1962). French titles: La jeune fille suppliciée sur une étagère / Le sourire des pierres.

I just read two short stories by Akira Yoshimura; they are published together as both have death as a theme but I’ll review them separately.

Shojo Kakei is a stunning story. The French title means The Young Girl Tortured on a Shelf. Mieko is 16 and she just died. Her soul hovers over her corpse and relates her impressions. She’s going to be our narrator.

A partir du moment où ma respiration s’est arrêtée, j’ai soudain été enveloppée d’air pur, comme si la brume épaisse qui flottait alentour venait de se dissiper pour un temps.Je me sentais aussi fraîche que si l’on venait de me baigner dans une eau limpide et pure. From the moment I stopped breathing, I felt suddenly enveloped in pure air, as if the thick fog surrounding me had just vanished.I felt as fresh as if I had just bathed in clear and pure water.(My translation)

She sees two men coming to her parents’ poor lodgings and giving her mother an envelope full of money. Her mother has sold her corpse to the local hospital where it will be used by students or for scientific experiment. Mieko describes what happens to her corpse, the journey to the hospital and how they dispose of her body. Meanwhile Mieko unfolds her life and lets us know who she was and how she was led to that untimely death.

Honestly, it was painful to read. I needed to block out the gory images Yoshimura conjured up in my mind when Mieko relates how hospital employees cut her body or treat it with chemical products. It would have been unbearable otherwise. That meant opening my mind to harmless descriptions of the streets and the settings and shutting it in a moment when it became too gory. I wonder if a Western writer could have written such a story. It’s so chilling and it shows a totally different approach to death than in Western countries (which I knew, but still)

Yoshimura writes beautifully. In the first pages, Mieko describes death as an access to extra sensitivity. She hears, feels, smells, sees better, grasping details in her surroundings that were imperceptible to her when she was alive. It’s an interesting way of imagining death.

In the second story, Ishi no Bisho, death is also a major theme. The French title means The smile of stones. Eichi lives in Tôkyô near a cemetery. When he was a child, he befriended with Sone and they used to play among the tombstones. Then Sone vanished and they never met again until Eichi stumbles upon him at the university. Sone asks Eichi to travel with him to the Island of Sado where he has a job for the two of them. Sone steals statues in historical cemeteries and sells them to antique dealers.

Death is everywhere in this story. It’s a link between Eichi and Sone as they were together when they discovered the corpse of a woman who had hung herself in the cemetery when they were children. Sone makes a living out of death, selling these statues. Sone is also fascinated by death in an unhealthy manner: he tends to persuade his girl-friends to commit suicide with him. Death is also present in Eichi’s unnamed sister. She was married but her in-laws sent her back home after they discovered she was infertile. Eichi’s sister sews clothes for an orphanage, spending her time and energy to help children whose parents are dead. On a more symbolical level, her womb is dead too, she’ll never bear a child. It’s the death of her dreams as a mother and it kills any chance to remarry.

After reading these two short stories, I have to admit that I struggle with Japanese literature mostly because I don’t know much about the customs of this country. I should read a non-fiction book, but that’s not my forte. I’m a bit angry at the publisher, actually. I enjoy books published by Actes Sud, they always select excellent writers. I just wish they added more to the book than just the text and scarce notes from the translator. I longed to read a foreword or footnotes with explanation about the vision of death in the Japanese society. It would have helped. I’m now thinking about trying Japanese literature in English provided that the English editions are more educational. Otherwise, I have the feeling I’ll never improve my level of reading in Japanese literature.

%d bloggers like this: