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Yu & Kazu

Japanese Book Club #1

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By Yu Miri (translated by Morgan Giles)

Tilted Axis Press

National Book Award winner Tokyo Ueno Station cannot have been easy to translate, because neither is it easy to read. There are no chapters, no linearity – and Yu Miri has her narrator (Kazu) 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 was forced to work away from his family, labouring, constructing venues for the Tokyo Olympics, building a modern Japan from the ground up. When he came home, only tragedy awaited him. In his retirement, he joined the many homeless of Ueno Park. And after that – well, we meet our narrator already dead: what remains of what remained of whatever life he had.

See, this book is a challenge not just in form but in content – 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 you’ll have no way of knowing how you got there. All you will know is that the route contained tangents: discursives on the Japanese military, architectural history and botany. Descriptions of roses break up the second half of the novel, sprouting bright colour between that of misery. 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, translator Morgan Giles has done wonders to preserve.

The result is iridescent, beautiful, unavoidably moving. And so clear at the level of the sentence – there is not a word or a phrase you will 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 and lasting. This book, more than many, 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’s there: Kazu’s life in the back of my mind, in any order I need put it.

But what I’ll be unable to file away, when I see the flame ignited in Tokyo next summer, are those unsleeping ghosts of Ueno Imperial Gift Park that once homeless now dwell in my conscience. Indeed, the defining skill of Yu Miri is to give those brushed aside new life.

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