Masatsugu Ono’s book, Lion Cross Point, is the most contemporary novel from Japan which I’ve had the pleasure to read. Murakami is a popular name, and I’ve certainly bought many of his books. One of the quotes on the back cover of Lion references him, and describes Ono as “one of the most important Japanese novelists of the post-Murakami generation.” As Murakami is still alive, I was curious what this would mean, and so I picked up this early advance copy in Seattle. I missed a talk by the author at Elliot Bay Bookstore by a month.
As a side interest, I’ve enjoyed reading modern Japanese literature for years. My first introduction, at around 14, was Mishima’s The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea, which failed to discourage me from reading more. Reading a brand new translation of a new author’s book is a treat (Mishima, assumedly, won’t be writing any more).
Lion Cross Point is a small book, clocking in at barely 120 pages. Split into three parts, it centers on a ten year old boy, supplanted from living with his brother and mother in Tokyo and thrust into southern Japan, with a relative of his mother’s. In the opening, his mother’s voice is the first we hear. “I hated it. Detested it. I just wanted to get away as soon as I could.” she says, as Takeru tries to understand why she hated her home so much. The opening section shows Takeru, silently trying to imagine his mother’s face, and we have a beautiful, dreamlike passage where, closing his eyes, he sees brown grass in the place of his mother’s face, seeing her perception of the island instead. His longing is compared to a pupating butterfly, replacing his original image of her with something wholly different; if less beautiful. The passage is strange; you wonder if he is actually seeing grass, or imagining it. It takes a few pages before we have an actual description of the scene - we are somewhere near the sea. Slowly, the narrator begins to describe Takeru’s location, his aunt/grandmother/caretaker, and how he got there.
The book defies normal expectations for the narrator. We never quite learn who is telling the story, and scenes constantly jump between descriptions of places to descriptions of emotions, with tangential characters described intimately, and relevant details omitted. Over time, the inconsistency takes on a dreamlike quality. Facts are elusive, and it is frequently hard to tell who says what, and where a thought begins and a description ends. This style serves a purpose; the reader, like Takeru, is left confused and disorientated.
If there is a plot, it is this: Takeru has a brother, never named, who is mentally disabled and who cannot fend for himself. Through flashbacks, we learn that their mother is likely a prostitute in Tokyo, with an abusive gangster for a boyfriend; she abandons the children for days at a time, and possibly for good. They survive through the beneficence of strangers: a Haitian construction worker, a classmate, a grandmother in a supermarket. Takeru is taken from this environment, inexplicably, and placed in his relative’s car in southern Japan. There, he sees Bunji, a ghost of a relative dead a hundred years, who offers small imperatives when Takeru is stressed or scared. Takeru befriends a neighbouring girl, Saki, and meets a few other adults on the island who knew his mother. He wants to see dolphins, believing they may be able to heal his brother, but also conflicted by guilt for abandoning him. Slowly, he begins a metamorphosis himself, learning to live with his doubts and questions about his upbringing.
But this all can be pieced together only slowly, and the narrative’s holes are never filled adequately. The reader begins to suspect, early on, that things are even less straightforward. Most tellingly, it’s unclear if Takeru’s brother exists at all. None of his relatives ever mention him, and Takeru’s descriptions of his brother are largely in febrile passages.
Bunji, the man (neither young, nor old, but certainly a relative that Takeru sees in a century-old photo), also isn’t seen by anyone else, and his instructions to Takeru - Don’t! Don’t talk about things you don’t know! - aren’t audible to others, either. But he must be said to exist; there he is, sitting on a bench, or walking alone a lane. If he is a figment of Takeru’s imagination, then he is a strange one, as he appears in the narrative before Bunji connects him to a photo of a relative long dead.
One learns to stop looking for facts, and instead rely on themes. Breath, wind; sounds; ants and monkeys; dolphins; drooling; things which melt. Eyes feature prominently, and there are long passages that mention looking inward, and outward. You learn that these discursive and philosophical passages are neither the raison d’être for the novel, nor explanatory of what is going on. They’re certainly not written from Takeru’s perspective (if they were, he could be said to suffer from Calvin and Hobbes syndrome, where the strength of the reasoning is beyond what a six-year old child ought to be capable). Instead, they are inseparable from the text, and the hints within them are useful for teasing out meaning: “[Bunji] couldn’t have created fake memories for himself.”, or “It was almost as if he’d never had a brother. Perhaps he hadn’t. Was that the truth of the matter? He wished it was.”
By letting go of the need for a consistent narrator (or consistent narrative, or characters), and unfocusing on the text, the book begins to snap into place. It tells the story of how a child responds to trauma. This, at least, is how the author frames it on his speaking tour. You can see Takeru grow, and accept; and at times regress, and shut out the past. There’s even the ubiquitous kitten of Japanese literature, often the object of violence by young children learning to externalize their emotions. Here, the kittens are mewing from inside himself, as from within a bag. The metaphor, while not entirely subtle, is beautifully told.
I have some misgivings about the book. For one, the metaphoric opening is intense and beautiful, but it isn’t matched in the rest of the text, which suffers for it. I’m reminded once again of Knausgaard (my favorite author for comparisons), whose opening in My Struggle was vastly different from the rest of the first book. I’m also not sure about the eye dialect used by Ono to represent southern Japanese accents. It would be great to read this in the original - the translator tried to display the accents, but I wanted more. My final nitpick is that the red kite of Japan is consistently translated as a hawk, which it isn’t. But that’s so small a point as to be pathetic.
Overall, it was a good read. I read the book fairly quickly, and found at the end that I was completely confused by it and couldn’t write this review. So, pen in hand, I read it again, marking up each page over and over with notes about the language and my guesses as to what was happening. The second reading gave me far more than the first did, and this was a good lesson. For some books, you need to read slowly, letting the images seep into your skin, wash over you. This is one of those.
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