February 2015

Salvatore Ruggiero


Ground Zero, Nagasaki: Stories by Seirai Yuichi, translated by Paul Warham

The awesome power of the atomic bomb that fell on a Japanese city during World War II is an undercurrent to the tales presented in Seirai Yuichi's newly translated Ground Zero, Nagasaki. For many, the destruction is something that's studied in history books. For others, notably the protagonists in these stories, the bomb is something that they lived through, surviving against all odds, and now have to live with. Living doesn't just come with memory; it comes with deformity, physical and mental, through generations. And yet, this is not where the only drama resides for Seirai.

"When I found the seashell by my pillow this morning, my first reaction was one of relief: maybe now they'll believe me at last" begins the story "Shells." This statement becomes even more curious when we find out that the narrator is two miles from the sea and on the twelfth floor of his apartment building in Nagasaki -- and he sleeps alone. This eerie start, perhaps something more akin to Haruki Murakami, moves to the sentimental as the story shifts to describe the narrator's loss of his four-year-old child to pneumonia. He then loses his marriage. All of this is elicited through his unlikely conversation with an old man who lives in his building. They bond in the nighttime as garbagemen pick up the trash on the street, as the old man describes how his sister and the narrator's daughter were friendly:

My sister used to say it was the sea that washed up all the trash. She said that waves washed over the city in the middle of the night... She must have been going senile. Brought in by the waves, you see. Bits of wood, cup noodle packets, plastic bags, empty soda bottles -- all brought in on the tide, according to her. Anyway she was right about one thing: the pollution's getting so bad the whole coast is like one big refuse dump nowadays.

Suddenly, I see the area around us as a long expanse of shoreline and Sayaka [the narrator's daughter] walking along the sand, strew with flotsam.

These delusional theories: Do they explain the narrator's shell on his pillow? Were his daughter and this old man's sister kindred spirits, as they died the same day in the summer -- taken too soon from their relatives? Who will come after these men, where is the next generation? These men unravel before our eyes as they tell their stories to one another. Seirai allows this to linger and haunt the reader.

The first story in the collection, "Nails," takes a totally different turn but is even more haunting. It is about an aging married couple that is coming to terms with their son, instituted due to his schizophrenia -- and, more intensely, the murder of his wife. They are confused, just as confused as their son who claims his wife isn't dead but sleeping with other men. The narrator, the father, asks:

Why had he [his son] put all his passion and energy into doubting rather than trusting? When had his love turned to hatred? Was he the last of our family line, which has continued unbroken for three hundred years -- the one unbeliever, in whom everything came to an end, undoing all the virtue that has kept the faith alive from generation to generation?

Of course the narrator is questioning whether he and his wife had raised his child correctly, especially when they find his secret room that just has thousands of nails half nailed into the walls. What does this act of exposed nails mean? And how can a murderous son come out of an ancestry of true-believers, Christians in a non-Christian nation?

For one of the more curious links in these tales is that the storytellers are Christians, either practicing or from families that practice. This fact emphasizes further the ostracized sensibilities of the characters. There are subtle hints about the Japanese persecution of this religious sect in Nagasaki and the martyrdom that followed -- the shogun beheading and burning the outsiders and their followers. The author is clearly trying to create a parallelism between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries, with regards to mass violence and execution, reminding us that we may forget these times at some point but history will not.

This is not to make it seem like Seirai is preaching to his readers in this collection. Certainly not. But his sprawling tales are not only enjoyable but also grounded in complex thoughts and analysis that make the read a worthwhile one.

Ground Zero, Nagasaki: Stories by Seirai Yuichi, translated by Paul Warham
Columbia University Press
ISBN: 978-0231171168
192 pages