Modern life in overcrowded cities estranges society ever more from its roots, be they natural, cultural or spiritual. The consequence is that many people are discontent although they have everything they could wish and hope for. They suffer feeling empty, lost and out of place. Looking for a way to salvation, some become easy prey for self-appointed preachers who offer ready-made instructions for everybody leading to quick as well as lasting peace of mind. Others are luckier. Fate pushes them into a situation that allows them to get back in touch with their souls and to restore their natural bond with the world. In Lake of Heaven by Ishimure Michiko the protagonist travels to the place where his late grandfather grew up to scatter his ashes over the old family grave and finds a fading world still in harmony with nature and local culture.
Ishimure Michiko (石牟礼 道子) was born Shiraishi Michiko (白石 道子) in Kawaura, Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan, in March 1927, but grew up in Minamata. After a stint as a primary school teacher during and shortly after World War II, she became a housewife and mother until she began writing in the 1950s. Her first published works were essays regarding environmental issues and what was later to be known as Minamata Disease. In 1969 she combined several of them to the documentary novel titled Paradise in the Sea of Sorrow: Our Minamata Disease (苦海浄土 わが水俣病) which raised awareness for problems of environmental pollution in Japan and became a widely translated best-seller worldwide. Also her second book, 天の魚 続 (1973; Heaven of Fish), was a big success, but like almost all works of the prolific as well as versatile writer – including award-winning 十六夜橋 (1992; Sakuya Bridge) – it has never been translated into English. To date the only other novel by this author available in English seems to be Lake of Heaven (天湖: 1997). Ishimure Michiko lives in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan.
Tugged away in the mountains of Kyūshū there is the Lake of Heaven, a storage reservoir that swallowed the entire village of Amazoko some thirty years earlier. Many villagers used the relocation money they received from the government to start a modern-style life in the new village or they seized the opportunity to move elsewhere like the protagonist’s grandfather who went to Tōkyō. In the 1990s, at the time of the O-bon festival in late summer, twenty-three-year-old Masahiko visits the place for the first time to scatter the ashes of his beloved grandfather’s bones on the graves of their ancestors. The graveyard, however, is under water like the rest of the village. On the shore of the lake Masahiko meets an old woman called Ohina who has come there too to visit the submerged graves of her family. When her daughter Omomo joins them later, the two women help Masahiko to perform the O-bon ceremony for his grandfather according to local tradition. Being a musician in search of inspiration, their simple songs impress him deeply. The whole ceremony strikes an unknown chord in his soul connecting him not just with surrounding nature but also with his ancestors and their cultural heritage. The tragic death of the mute shrine maiden Sayuri who drowns herself in the lake during the O-bon ceremony urges Masahiko to stay on until her funeral. Mixing with local people, most of them already advanced in age like Ohina, deepens his knowledge of the village’s and his own family’s past, his transcendental connection with the surroundings and his understanding of the ancient myths as well as the respective religious practice that have been passed on from one generation to the next for centuries. He becomes sensitive to the scars that the construction of the dam left on nature, society and souls. Moreover, the experience opens his mind for a wealth of sounds that he never knew…
The story of the Lake of Heaven is a powerful and multi-layered parable of the modern world at large that puts science and progress first leaving many people disconnected with nature and spiritually uprooted. The simple main plot follows the course of Japanese death rituals and is for the rest fictitious. It is skilfully interwoven with numerous episodes dedicated to nostalgic reminiscences of the past as the remaining inhabitants see it and with others showing the transcendental experiences that eventually allow the protagonist to discover a “world of sound” indiscernible in the artificial environment of Tōkyō. The central elements of the story, namely the village under water and the memories of its relocated inhabitants, are loosely based on reality just as the local tales of spirits and Gods are. The author’s narrative style is unpretentious and poetic. According to the translator and critics the novel has a touch of the Noh drama. I can’t tell if this is true because I’m not familiar with the genre, but it’s hardly surprising since the author also excelled as a playwright for the Noh theatre. As can be expected of a novel dealing with nature and mythology, the language is very rich in vivid as well as unusual images. I enjoyed it immensely.
Reading Lake of Heaven by Ishimure Michiko has been an impressive experience for me because it shows the generally overlooked interconnection between the disrespect for nature and the loss of sensitivity as well as cultural identity of the individual in an increasingly globalised and technology-based world. For raising attention to this issue alone, the novel would already deserve my recommendation, but it has much more to offer! Its mythological dimension, for instance, is particularly fascinating for someone like me who grew up with European culture. In addition, it’s a really good book.
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