Friday, 22 September 2017

Book Review: Kinshu. Autumn Brocade by Miyamoto Teru
The separation of a couple can be a painful and traumatic experience for both partners, especially when it’s the result of sudden events or discoveries that make it impossible or unbearable to stay together. In such cases emotions often explode and burn out in a war of the roses, but not always. Sometimes they just simmer below the surface for a long time because the partners avoided facing each other as well as their problems and thus never really closed this chapter of their lives. Ten years have passed since Aki and Yasuaki, the protagonists exchanging letters in Kinshu. Autumn Brocade by Miyamoto Teru, divorced. A chance encounter on a gondola going up Mount Zaō on a day in November evokes memories and two months later Aki finally musters up the courage to ask her ex-husband how it came that back then he was found half-dead beside the body of a dead geisha. 

Miyamoto Teru (宮本 輝) was born Miyamoto Masahito (宮本正仁) in Kōbe, Hyōgo Prefecture, Japan, in March 1947. After his graduation in Literature from Otemon Gakuin University in Ōsaka in 1970, he worked for a while as copywriter to earn his living. In the early 1970s he also turned to fiction writing and made his debut as a novelist in 1977 with Muddy River (泥の河), the first volume of the Rivers Trilogy completed by River of Fireflies (螢川: 1978) and River of Lights (道頓堀川: 1978). Other notable works of the award-winning author, whose books are very popular in his country and little translated, are the novels 幻の光 (1979; Maborosi) that was adapted for the screen and most importantly Kinshu. Autumn Brocade (錦繍: 1982) along with the short story collection 夢見通りの人々 (1986; The People of Dream Street). Some of the author's short works from the 1970s on have been published in English translation under the title Phantom Lights and Other Stories. Miyamoto Teru lives with his wife in Itami, a suburb of Ōsaka, Hyōgo Prefecture, Japan.

On 16 January Aki writes the first letter of Kinshu. Autumn Brocade to her ex-husband Yasuaki. Ever since early in November, when they accidentally met in a gondola going up Mount Zaō, which she had mounted with her retarded eight-year-old son to show him from its summit the star-spangling sky that he adored, she couldn’t help thinking about Yasuaki and the course that their lives have taken. At the age of thirty-seven Yasuaki hardly resembles the man she divorced ten years earlier after he was found stabbed half to death in the room of a Kyoto inn with the dead body of a geisha beside him. Back then he never offered an explanation for what obviously was a partly failed double suicide, and completely shattered as she was, she didn’t insist on getting one. Seeing that the scandal threatened the family business that Yasuaki had been meant to take over at long last, Aki meekly followed her father’s advice to get a divorce and Yasuaki didn’t oppose. For more than a year she lived in a daze and seclusion, but then a café opened down the street and she discovered the healing power of Mozart’s music. After a while Aki entered a second marriage with the college lecturer Sōichirō and they had their son who turned out to be retarded. Aki took care of the boy and Sōichirō like Yasuaki before him took a lover. Now Aki is thirty-five years old and she finally wants to know what really happened in the inn and why Yasuaki was there. Only after nearly two months Yasuaki grudgingly answers Aki’s long letter. His life has gone constantly downhill since their divorce. Several business ventures failed and when they met in November, he was on the run from a loan shark claiming his money…

The fourteen letters that Aki and Yasuaki exchange between January and November of the same year combine to the epistolary novel Kinshu. Autumn Brocade and reveal not only the life-stories of their writers following the divorce, but also their lasting sorrow and their inability to completely let go of the traumatic events that changed everything for them. In their letters they open up to each other at last and thus they gradually come to terms with the past that both always blamed for the adversity and gloom of their existence. It’s a painful and upsetting process, especially for Yasuaki who is forced to share his near-death experience, but at its end they are ready to truly face the future and to take the responsibility of filling it with meaning. Although the novel closes on a moderately optimistic note, its general tone is melancholic like the autumn scene that the English subtitle evokes in line with the meaning of the Japanese word “kinshu”. According to the English translator Roger K. Thomas “kinshu” stands at the same time for “embroidery” and “brocade”, a recurrent symbol of autumn in Japanese literature. Its elegant and unpretentious language makes the novel a very pleasant read.

Being an avid snail mailer and having a certain penchant for the melancholy and contemplative, I thoroughly enjoyed Kinshu. Autumn Brocade by Miyamoto Teru. Although it’s a Japanese novel primarily written for a Japanese audience, it’s an unusually accessible, not to say universal work about the fleeting character of life and about the diverse as well complex relations between men and women in modern society among others. Of course, the story is deeply rooted in Japanese culture that despite its modernity holds many old values high in esteem and keeps following a modified, though still traditional unwritten code of conduct. The focus of the author is on the feelings of Aki and Yasuaki who suffered because they never dared to openly express them and consequently relived them over and over again. In a way it’s a very subtle and not overly sentimental criticism of the old ways of handling emotions. For me it’s definitely worthwhile reading!

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This review is a contribution to
(images linked to my reading lists):

1 comment:

  1. The three Rivers works are available in English now, too:


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