Sunday, August 29, 2010

Be Careful What You Wish For: Shipwrecks

Akira Yoshimura’s short, dark novel Shipwrecks, translated by Mark Ealey, tells the story of several years in the life of a young boy, Isaku, who lives in an isolated Japanese village. Yoshimura’s storytelling has an ethnographic feel as he describes the hardships of life centuries ago: the villagers depend on the ocean for fish and salt, which they trade for grain in other towns. Varying catches make subsistence living so difficult that many people, including Isaku’s father, sell themselves into indentured labor to feed their families.

The village has another, more occasional and troubling, source of goods, though – the back cover of my paperback rightfully calls Shipwrecks a “Gothic tale.” Every winter, after a ritual involving a pregnant woman on a boat, villagers boil ocean water down to salt at night under raging fires stoked to entice ships to run aground. Then they take its cargo. I don’t want to reveal too much so will just say that Shipwrecks shows what happens when ignorance and poverty drive people to do too much to profit from the misfortune of others. The village itself feels a little like a wrecked ship.

Shipwrecks is bleak and spare, with little plot beyond basic survival. We see Isaku improve his fishing skills, learn to care for his family, and develop yearnings for a village girl. Yoshimura’s mentions of the beauty and harshness of nature – changes of seasons and annual runs of certain types of fish – parallel births, maturity, and deaths in the village. I thoroughly enjoyed Yoshimura’s depictions of the simple and cruel truths of everyday village life, particularly when the tone darkened and emotion intensified after the horrifying consequences of a second shipwreck.

(Beware: this Times review contains a lot of story detail.) Richard Bernstein’s very positive review of Shipwrecks, from The New York Times, July 24, 1996.

Up next: Russian Winter from Daphne Kalotay, then Dalia Sofer’s The September of Shiraz. I also just borrowed Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room, a 2009 Booker Prize finalist, from the library…

Most intriguing reviews of the week: The first paragraph of Francine Prose’s New York Times Book Review review of Hans Keilson’s The Death of the Adversary and Comedy in a Minor Key ends by saying the books “are masterpieces, and Hans Keilson is a genius.” That’s a little strong -- hyperbolic, perhaps? -- but the books sound very good. I also like the sound of Camilla Ceder’s Frozen Moment, as described here on International Noir Fiction.

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