Shipwrecks by Akira Yoshimura. Translated by Mark Ealey. Approx. 160 pages.
A national treasure in Japan, Akira Yoshimura is famous for his lean, evocative prose. Luckily for us in the States, some of his works are seeing the light of day here with fairly decent English translations. Shipwrecks is one of the first works by Yoshimura to make that jump.
The events of Shipwrecks centers on a boy named Isaku, and takes place on a small, isolated, unnamed coastal village in Medieval feudal Japan. The environment only offers a sparse, and often harsh life for the villagers. As with most coastal dwellers, their survival in contingent on the bounties yielded by the ocean. Surrounded by hills and mountains, the available soil only yields the most meager of crops. The only means that they can barter for necessary goods is with the closest village....a mere three days walk away. And without crops to trade, their considerations for barter slim as well, usually with goods made from the bark of linden trees, salt gathered from boiling pots on the shore, and with human capital. There is a broker in the town that arranges terms of indentured servitude, usually at five or ten years at a time. It is not unnatural, then, when seasonal catches are lean, that strong young members of families will have no other choice but to go into bondage to provide any form of money for their households. This can become even more dangerous if stingy fishing seasons outpace financial considerations. Mortality rates in the village are rather high as a result of this.
It is due to these harsh living conditions that we find our young protagonist, nine year-old Isaku, quite literally the 'man of the house'. His father has just left for a term of indenture. On a positive note, his father is particularly strapping and healthy, meaning that a) he has a better chance of returning home (many others die in their servitude), and b) he was able to command a good price for a shorter term (three years vs. five or ten). Unfortunately, he leaves behind his wife and four children (including a newborn), making Isaku sole provider. Isaku has to master being a harvester of the seas, with each season's catch requiring separate techniques. He also has to help with gathering any local, viable resources for use or trade. Psychologically burdened by the weight of not wanting to let his father down (who tasked him personally with the safety of the family), as well as his desire to earn the respect of the village, and also his burgeoning feelings for a young lady, it is easy to see there is a lot of pressure on his shoulders. Try to step back and appraise Isaku's position; understandably at the time most children already had more responsibilities than the youth of today, but who can imagine these obligations at the ripe old age of nine?
Now, this all sums up daily life pretty nicely, however, we all know that within all societal circles and enclaves, there are traditions. And secrets. This village has a tradition as well; the worship of O-fune-sama (OH-foo-Nay-sah-mah). O-fune-sama is the deity that the villagers pray too; the salt pots burn through the night in his honor, offerings are made to him. He has no set schedule for his visits; every few years he visits and brings his bounties of food and other treasures to the villagers. Tales of the last visitation are recalled with unabated joy. With times recently so difficult, catches so lean, and so many of the village's strong members away in bondage, will O-fune-sama bless his loyal believers?
Normally I would list the following content as spoiler territory, however, the information is all in the open. Any of the Amazon starred reviews, heck, even the back cover of the print version, give the details I am about to go into. But, consider yourselves warned nonetheless.
O-fune-sama is not, in the end, an actual god. The gifts that he yields are in fact shipwrecks of passing vessels damaged among the treacherous rocks surrounding the village. From these wrecks, the villagers harvest rice, alcohol, timber, and other luxuries (fancy clothing, sugar, etc.). And while some of the villagers naturally indulge in a little excess (a little overeating, enjoying the liquor a bit too much), a visit from O-fune-sama means, at the very least, that no one will starve to death for at least a year.
But, of course, there is a twist. The offerings to O-fune-sama are not simple devotion. The villagers know well the role that the rocks play in handicapping ships that drift too close. In fact, the nighttime boiling of the salt pots is no more than a ruse to lull sailors into false hope of safe harbor. When, perchance, a ship does crash, along with raiding the cargo and dismantling the ship until nothing remains, any surviving sailors are killed by the villagers. A necessity, Isaku's mother assures him. And the villagers are shrewd as well; they know to check the sails on wrecks before they begin to pillage. A previous experience involving a ship belonging to a noble (I believe a daimyo, although it may have been a shogun) has taught them this diligence. For them, however, a lost merchant ship is fair game. Long story short, for the villagers, they stave off starvation, and the end justifies the means.
It takes a while into the book for the first visitation. This gives Yoshimura time to recreate the world, ripe for the reader to immerse themselves in it. Isaku learns to catch sardines, saury, etc. The seasons change. The visitation comes, and it is a boon. Then things take a tragic turn. Or, you could say that karma pay a visit to collect on some debts. That is all a matter of perspective.
Almost miraculously, O-fune-sama makes a second visitation within a year. Although the villagers are elated at what seems like hitting the lottery twice at the same newsstand, this second ship had a much smaller yield. No real foodstuffs are to be found (luckily the previous ship was loaded to the brim with rice), but there is still the timber of the ship. Also, the clothing of the deceased sailors (no survivors on this one), is made from some luxurious red cloth. Therefore, some regal outfits can be made for some of the ladies and girls of the village. It does seem strange though, that all the passengers were already dead, their faces scarred and horribly pockmarked.
Not long after, a good number of villagers start becoming ill. What begins with fevers and blinding headaches leads to bodies completely covered in ugly, pus-filled blisters. Many who contract this ailment die horrible, pain-wracked deaths. Some weather through it (including Isaku's mother and brother, who becomes struck blind by it), and some, like Isaku himself, are completely unaffected.
SOME SPOILERS COMING
All those that have survived the disease (obviously smallpox) are banished from the village into the mountains outside the village. Included in this group are the village elder, Isaku's mother and brother (his last remaining sister having succumbed to the disease), and the girl that was his romantic interest.
In the end, Isaku still has to do his part in the decimated village, and while out fishing, he sees his father coming home. The End.
What will happen next, we just have to imagine. Will his father understand his effort? Hopefully. Will he resent or blame him? Who knows. Will they do their best to keep the village thriving or leave their lives to be with their banished loved ones? Your guess is as good as mine.
So, what exactly was the point of this tale? Is it a story that indicts religion as a premeditated fraud through which we seek to gain our own good fortune even by inflicting misfortune upon others? Perhaps. Is it a novel that extols the purity of diligence and virtue of hard work as the most most noble enterprise? Very likely. Is it a cautionary tale that reminds us the karma is always watching, taking score, and making notes? Absolutely. Those that were not infected only end up facing a more difficult life. Not all that died or suffered through the disease were killers. But, before one mourns their plight, they should be careful to ask if they also mourned for the sailors that pleaded for their lives earlier in the novel?
The book itself: As mentioned earlier, this is a short novel (only around 160 pages). The translation, by Mark Ealey, is, for the most part, exceptional. This is no faint praise. I have read a few pieces of Japanese fiction translated for English release, and it is very common to see either bland interpretations (as if they directly translated through a Japanese-English dictionary) or works that try too hard to replicate conversation through American jargon. I cannot say how Yoshimura's tone matches its English counterpart, but this work is accessible and completely readable/enjoyable.
There are, however, two issues that I had with the translation. Towards the end, there is a scene where a local plant is mentioned, and the Japanese name is given, along with a definition in parenthesis. This (a mentioned in the Kattekoppen review) breaks the illusion of immersion and reminds me that there is a writer lurking somewhere directing action. My opinion; if you are going to mention indigenous items that might be unfamiliar to the reader, add a definition list or glossary at the beginning or end. Or trust the reader to Google it themselves. Second, at one point at the very end, Isaku and a villager are talking, and one of them responds with "y'know". This is one of those forced colloquialisms that is a potential dealkiller. This is a medieval island village, I don't think any language at the time used that term. But I am not an historian either.
On a final note, assuming you have not read the spoilers section, I can see some readers having an issue with the ending. I can tell you, it is a very open ending. My opinion is that Yoshimura wants to leave the reader with the same kind of worrisome knot in their stomach that Isaku must have at the end. Others might demand closure, they will want it spelled out for them in plain view. Those people will be upset and feel shortchanged. I am fine with the ending, others might want to knock my rating down a few points. But I believe that the story that needed to be told was told.
Closing thoughts: As well written as this novel is, it is undeniably bleak. It is very difficult to be sympathetic towards many of the villagers, although you will find yourself rooting for Isaku the whole way through. This novel shows well that although a people may seem primitive, or quaint, it doesn't mean that they are stupid, naive, or necessarily good-hearted. Given their harsh living conditions, are their actions understandable or criminal? Or is it justified under life's pecking order? The villagers' own best resources are continually exploited by the broker in the next village; how much nobler or villainous is that compared to the worship of O-fune-sama? In fact, all it does it validate my favorite quote by Bertrand Russell, that "life is nothing but a competition to be the criminal rather than the victim".
Here's What It Is:
A lean, mean little postcard from medieval Japan. A well-written, well-translated novel about karma's fury that will get zero votes for 'Feel Good Novel of the Year'.
There are two covers that I know of floating around for this title. The one depicted above is a simple illustration that sets the tone of the novel well. A lone ship traverses choppy waters under a cloudy sky, much like how Isaku weathers his stormy life alone. The piece looks to be rendered in charcoal and conte crayon.
Cover Final Score: