UofG Japanese Book Club

Yu & Kazu

By Yu Miri (translated by Morgan Giles)

Tokyo Ueno Station cannot have been easy to translate, because neither is it easy to read. There are no chapters, no lineality – and Yu Miri has her narrator explain why:

I used to think life was like a book: you turn the first page and there’s the next, and as you go on turning page after page, eventually you reach the last one. But life is nothing like a story in a book. There may be words, and the pages may be numbered, but there is no plot. There may be an ending, but there is no end.

And yet Tokyo Ueno Station is a lot like a life – a life and then some. Kazu was born the same year as Emperor Akihito, in 1933; their sons were born on the same day (‘what a blessing’). But while horoscopes aligned, destinies did not. Kazu had to work away from his family, labouring, constructing venues for the Olympics, building a modern Japan from the ground up. When he came home, only tragedy awaited him; when he retired, he joined the many homeless of Ueno Park. And after that – well, we meet our narrator already dead: a spirit, what remains of what remained of whatever life he had.

This book is a challenge not only in form but in content – because it is a collection of memories from a man without luck or reward, and it is chaptered by heartbreak. Yu steers the reader into a head-on depression, with words so cool and dispassionate that you will have no way of knowing how you ever got there. All you will know is that the route contained tangents: discursives on the Japanese military, architectural history, and botany. Descriptions of roses are scattered through the second half of the novel, sprouting bright colour between that of misery. Still the text remains cold, calm, unconcerned with emotion. So Yu makes light of a Jamesian task: to not think too much about optimism and pessimism but to catch the colour of life itself. And what Yu caught, Morgan Giles has done wonders to preserve.

The result is iridescent and beautiful, and clearly presented. There is not a word or a phrase you’ll need help to decipher. Brevity too is a gift, a genius that spares us from exhaustion and seems to come at no price. Kazu’s personal history is condensed into 168 pages, yet his legacy is complete. This book, more than most, allows us to marvel at the transcendence of reading: how a character’s memories can become stored in one’s own, all their thoughts, their loves and sadness. I do not know how, but I know that it is there – Kazu’s life, in the back of my mind, in any order I need put it.

What I will be unable to file away, when I see the flame ignited in Tokyo this summer, are those unsleeping ghosts of Ueno Imperial Gift Park that once homeless now dwell in my conscience.

Tokyo Ueno Station
(UK: Tilted Axis Press, 2019)
Paperback, pp. 168