Naoko: A Novel
A life of otherwise tedious but mostly quietly enjoyable bourgeois insignificance is smashed when a traffic accident leads to multiple deaths on a ski trip tour bus in rural Japan. Among the deaths are the wife of Heisuke, the principal protagonist who threw herself on top of their 11-year old daughter, Monami, which protected her at the cost of brain damage that has sent her into a coma from which she may never emerge. The wife – the eponymous Naoko – has a final moment of clarity in the hospital before dying, at exactly the same moment that daughter Monami suddenly and unexpectedly awakens. The problem is, or perhaps the opportunity, that Naoko’s consciousness has found itself in Monami’s body. Heisuke has recovered his wife but lost his daughter.
In the following days and weeks, Heisuke and Naoko start to come to terms with their emotions and try to work out a method of living a normal life in an abnormal situation. At the same time, Heisuke becomes involved in the process of obtaining compensation from the company operating the bus and the family of the errant driver in a bid to make some sense of the accident, which appears otherwise meaningless.
This book was first published in 1998 and set a decade or so earlier, which means that the characters do not have access to mobile telephones or the internet technology that makes all kinds of lack of communication and gradual investigation of events unnecessary. This translation (from 2004) is a little American or perhaps Canadian in nature but otherwise mostly unobtrusive, apart from some apparent additions about bath tubs and other culturally-specific activities which would not be familiar to most people not familiar with life in Japan. The book itself has become a bestseller in its native land and even a major film. It is not surprising because the pace of the narrative is well-sustained, the characters show genuine development (Naoko particularly) and it is clear that the visual effects would be striking. The beginning of the book takes a comical approach to the situation, with both Naoko and Heisuke mis-speaking in public in ways that would reveal the truth of their circumstances. This does not really work and it is something of a relief when this approach is subsequently abandoned and a more sophisticated method is taken. Some of the episodes are really quite moving and the plot develops nicely and, while surprising, is not illogical, apart from the necessary suspension of disbelief required to accept the initial premise. I read the whole book while having to spend rather longer at Kansai airport recently than I had anticipated. It was not quite in one sitting but not far from it and this is a book that is easy and enjoyable to read and, as such, I can recommend it.
Whenever I read contemporary or at least modern Japanese fiction, I cannot help but think of the issue of authenticity. Japanese society is still characterized by the imperial past and it is evident from the highly mannered ways in which people deal with each other that it is necessary for them to keep their emotions in check at all times (or at least so I imagine it to be the case). Consequently, it is not surprising that many people are concerned about whether they are being true to themselves and, in the context of hyper-capitalism and mass urbanization as has developed in Japan, what the true nature of their society is and its meaning. In this sense, the double figure of Naoko-Monami is symbolic of the ambivalence concerned. They cannot coexist and one cannot meet both functions. Forced to choose between wife (present) and daughter (future), which should the Everyman Heisuke choose? Or is some kind of Hegelian synthesis possible?