Newly translated Japanese novel from Hayashi (1903–51) offers a tragic love story set against a backdrop of war and occupation.
The author’s life was marked by grinding poverty and unhappiness, so it’s tempting to see her in the role of Yukiko Koda, a young woman who in 1943 finds herself posted as a trainee secretary at a tropical arboriculture institute in occupied Vietnam. The work is good as far as it goes; one Saigon appointee asks, “The quinine plantation of the Pasteur Institute, isn’t that top-notch?” Top-notch it isn’t, but Yukiko finds succor in the arms of the not-quite-dashing Tomioka Kengo, who promises to leave his wife for her when the time is right. Tomioka, we learn, isn’t much in the trustworthiness department; in fact, he seems to have very few positive traits to stack up against his alcoholism and Kowalski-like brutality. The war ends, Tomioka returns to his wife and Yukiko is on her own. She takes up residence in a shed and is soon grateful for the nighttime visits of an American soldier and the rations he brings. In time, however, Tomioka and Yukiko find each other, a process helped along by the death of Tomioka’s wife—and, as the story unfolds, by the deaths of just about every other character, while Tomioka keeps on drinking. The conventional story contains few surprises and lacks the psychological depth of works by Hayashi’s contemporaries, Kenzaburo Oe and Takahashi Takako. The translation, too, has a fusty literalness (“She thought that the strength she had shown in refusing to succumb to Kano’s passion last night must have earned her today’s happiness”) that, we assume, mirrors the author’s bygone style.
An imperfect book that joins a tradition of tales of women done wrong and who, at least in some way, get even for their suffering, even if it doesn’t make them any happier.