Friday, 9 August 2013

Children with No Mother, A Mother with No Child

TSUBOI Sakae (壺井栄, 1899-1967) was a writer from Shoudoshima, one of the larger islands in the Seto inland sea. She was the daughter of a cooper, one of a large family, which later fell on hard times when the barrel making business failed. Her most famous work is 二十四の瞳 (にじゅうしの ひとみ, Twenty Four Eyes, 1952), which follows the relationship of a primary school teacher in a village on the island to twelve of her pupils through the years leading up to the second world war and beyond. The book was made into a very famous film in 1954, and is an influential depiction of the effects of the military regime and the war on ordinary people.

母のない子と子のない母と  (Children with No Mother, A Mother with No Child) was first serialised in 1948 as 海辺の村の子供たち (The Children of a Seaside Village), then revised and published in book form in 1951. Both theme and structure are very close to 二十四の瞳. The story follows a woman who has moved back to her home village on Shoudoshima from Osaka after the death of her husband and son during the war. A little later, her cousin's family, a mother and two sons, move back to the neighbouring village, after their home in Saitama is bombed on the last day of the war. (The cousin himself has not yet returned from the war, and the family is uncertain whether he is alive or not.) Soon after their arrival, the mother becomes ill and her youngest son Shirou is sent to stay with his aunt. Then she dies and the eldest, Ichirou, joins his brother in the little earth built home of his aunt. Ichirou and other primary school children in the village share the focus of the story, which progresses in a series of small episodes or with gaps of days, weeks or sometimes months in between. This is similar to the way 二十四の瞳 is narrated, but there the gaps are sometimes several years.

The villagers are almost all fishermen or small farmers (or some combination). Many houses have names that recall their status as shops; but during the war, they have abandoned the business. Like Ichirou several children in the village have fathers who are missing or dead; and the memory of these people and the difficulty of accepting that they will not be coming back recur in several scenes, particularly in a chapter where Ichirou helps his best friend (also called Shirou, but with different kanji) harvesting. The villagers and their life is sympathetically depicted. The children show occasional realistic selfishness, jealousy and pettiness, but all are shown as good hearted.

Shiro tried to calm things down, "Still, just perhaps, he might return. He'll come back, that's what I think."

"How would you know? As if!" Ichirou said, casting the words aside. His spoke with distaste, as if Shirou had been humouring him.

At that point, Tatsuo had the strongest reaction. In an angry voice, he said, "Aye, it's clear. How would he know? As if. But, you're still better off than me. They sent my father's body back to us. Compared to that, since there's no official word on your father, he might return, mightn't he?"

Ichirou lifted his face. Tatsuo went on all the more, in an aggressive tone, adding examples, "Take Shirou chan's father. He was on a ship and is missing now. Shigeru's older brother died in the war. Lots did. Around me there are six people gone. But everyone thinks maybe they'll come back, and waits for them."

Ichirou listened in silence, then, his head bowed down, "I didn't know. I'm sorry," he apologised in a small but clear voice. "Still, you have a mother, don't you?"

Both for its picture of the aftermath of war and for its scenes of life in Shoudoshima at that time, the book is well worth reading. My edition recommends the book for the upper years of primary school (10-12 years, I suppose) and above. But for a Japanese learner, it's probably better not taken lightly. I found it often much harder to understand than most children's books (though a lot easier than 二十四の瞳). There are two problems. There is a lot of speech, so there is a lot of dialect, which also crops up outside direct speech, when the narration reflects the attitudes of the characters. The narrative technique involves little jumps from one episode to the next, and these are often introduced with something that even Japanese readers of the time would not immediately have understood, little riddles arising from the circumstances or local customs, which then become clear in the course of the narrative. But a non-native reader is thrown out a lot more by something like this.



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