March 2006

Soo Jin Oh

fiction

Kinshu: Autumn Brocade by Teru Miyamoto

It could be a story out of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age: a young wealthy couple whose marriage is shattered one morning when the husband is discovered, close to death from an apparent dual suicide attempt, with the body of his childhood love. However, the setting of this sensationalistic plot is not Long Island but Kyoto, the city famously associated not only with the pleasures of the Floating World but also with much of Japan’s art and literature. In keeping with this traditional setting, Teru Miyamoto employs one of the oldest prose forms, the epistolary novel, in Kinshu: Autumn Brocade to reveal the aftermath on the lives of the now divorced wife and husband ten years after their marriage ended.

Aki and Yasuaki meet accidentally on a gondola going up Mount Zao: Aki is on a pleasure trip to show the stars to her son who is physically and mentally handicapped when Yasuaki jumps onto the gondola to flee a loan shark whom he cannot repay. The initial letters reveal how they have continued their lives as though they were being pushed unwillingly forward in time while facing backwards into a better and more desirable past. Aki has spent her second marriage and her motherhood wondering if she would have had a healthy child if she had remained married to Yasuaki. Yasuaki, in the meantime, has fallen from being the likely successor of his father-in-law’s company to becoming a sometime entrepreneur, with one failed business after another, who must live off his girlfriend’s meager salary as a supermarket cashier. Both of them pinpoint their current unhappiness to that morning ten years ago. From the moment of this accidental meeting, Aki pursues the truth of that morning when her husband nearly died, and his beautiful lover did die.

From this thumbnail sketch, it would seem that Miyamoto has written a novel centering around a scandal. On the contrary, the novel is compelling because of its strong undercurrent of mono no aware, the expression of sorrow and sadness at the fleeting nature of life. In her second letter to Yasuaki, Aki recounts how, depressed and unwilling to socialize with her old friends in the year following the divorce, she started frequenting a small neighborhood café known for playing only Mozart’s music and became a Mozart devotee. In a conversation with the café owners, she says, “Perhaps living and dying are the same thing. That’s the great mystery Mozart’s gentle music seems to be expressing.”

In response to Aki’s vulnerable and self-revealing comments on the intertwined nature of life and death, Yasuaki finally shares his experience of near-death with his ex-wife. He relates how, as he lay on the operation table, unconscious, another self lifted out of him and hovered over his body. Yet, this other self was no spirit; it was life itself:

Our lives do not move according to the dictates of a “spirit.” I have come to the conclusion that the “other self” is only a repository of my actions -- good and evil -- which continue to exist after death, and are subjected to endless torment. It is not the ghost that is often called a “spirit” but rather the “life” within us, which, while allowing us to feel anger, sadness, joy, and pain, also allows complex and subtle physical and mental activities. It wasn’t anything like a “spirit.” It was definitely life….

Even in death, then, life continues, held in a matrix of all complicated emotions and actions enacted while living, not a spirit but a compression of the life lived. Through this reflection on his experience with death, Yasuaki begins to understand the consequences of his actions in life. Yasuaki’s letter serves as the crucial turning for these two persons who, for a decade, have felt that their futures were thwarted by one unfortunate mishap. It is only after this letter that each can begin to reflect on the future with meaning and with a sense of their own responsibility towards others -- Aki towards her son and Yasuaki towards his girlfriend.  

Teru Miyamoto is virtually unknown in the United States, possibly because his writing is  quieter than those of the better known Haruki Murakami or Banana Yoshimoto; however, he is widely known in Japan and has received many awards. Even as his novel offers less glamour or oddities than Murakami, or less sexual details than Yoshimoto, the details of the daily lives of these characters: Aki, her successful but lonely and aging father, the music obsessed owners of Mozart Café, Yasuaki, his devoted girlfriend: are more immediately recognizable. In that sense, one feels a more immediate kinship with the emotions explored in the novel. Kinshu is a literary field in which to contemplate one’s conception of death and the failures of our own pasts. 

Kinshu is the first Miyamoto novel to be made available in English in the United States. The only other way to access Miyamoto’s other works (unless one speaks Japanese) is to rent Maborosi, a movie based on a Miyamoto novel and beautifully directed by Hirokazu Koreeda (Afterlife). After that, we will all have to wait for the next translation.    

Kinshu: Autumn Brocade by Teru Miyamoto
New Directions
ISBN: 0811216330
224 Pages