- Lisa Yoneyama (Author)
Hiroshima Traces: Time, Space, and the Dialectic of Memory. University of California Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Reiko Tachiban (Author)
Narrative as Counter-Memory: A Half-Century of Postwar Writing in Germany and Japan. State University of New York Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Catherine Lang (Author)
O-Bon in Chimunesu: A Community Remembered. Arsenal Pulp Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Peter Oliva (Author)
The City of Yes. McClelland & Stewart Ltd. (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Susan Fisher
Reiko Tachibana’s study of postwar German and Japanese fiction begins with Michel Foucault ’s definition of "effective history": "it deals with events in terms of their most unique characteristics, their most acute manifestations." These "unique characteristics" and "acute manifestations" find expression in "counter-memory." Whereas official history claims to be objective and unified, counter-memory provides a personal, subjective account of the past. All of the works discussed here deal with counter-memory and its power to challenge official histories.
Lisa Yoneyama, author of Hiroshima Traces: Time, Space, and the Dialectics of Memory, points out that official histories of the bombing of Hiroshima have reinforced the view that Japan was a victim nation; by parading the agonies of Hiroshima, the Japanese have been able to maintain what Yoneyama calls "a national victimology and phantasm of innocence." Yoneyama examines three ways that memories of the bombing have been sustained: oral narratives of individual survivors (hibakusha), changes in the cityscape of Hiroshima itself, and public debates over the Korean Atom Bomb Memorial. While these "mnemonic practices" (as Yoneyama calls them) perpetuate the myth of Japan’s vic-timhood, they also provide opportunities to challenge it. When, for example, city officials proposed to relocate the memorial to Korean atom bomb victims, many Korean "resident aliens" objected. They argued that the monument should remain in its original location outside the official Peace Park boundaries; the site, they claimed, accurately represented the status of Koreans in Japan. The controversy brought to public awareness the fact that some twenty to thirty thousand Koreans died at Hiroshima; many of them had come to the city under wartime forced labour programs. Yoneyama effectively demonstrates how this "dialectics of memory" operates both to reinforce Japan’s victim-hood and to reveal its role as an aggressor and colonial power. At times, Yoneyama resorts to prefabricated theoretical prose to make her points, but her research is thorough, and her description of people and places vivid.
According to Reiko Tachibana in Narrative as Counter-Memory, postwar writers in Germany and Japan have employed similar strategies to challenge official history. She sees the fiction of both countries in terms of three phases. The first was characterized by realistic, highly autobiographical accounts; among these she cites Ooka Shohei’s short story "Until Being Captured" and, in Germany, the works known as Trümmerliteratur (literature of rubble) by authors such as Heinrich Böll and Ernst Wiechert. The second phase produced more inventive, even grotesque, re-writings of the war experience by writers such as Günter Grass, Oe Kenzaburo, and Mishima Yukio. In the third phase, writers such as Christa Wolf and Oba Minako have gone beyond national history to view the suffering of the war from a timeless or international perspective. Tachibana is not the first critic to conduct this sort of comparison, but she proposes an unusually comprehensive schema that argues for sustained parallels over a fifty-year period. Not surprisingly, the comparisons at times seem strained. Nevertheless, by concentrating on particular pairs of texts, Tachibana is able to draw out parallels, both historical and literary, that are well worth examining.
Catherine Lang’s O-Bon in Chimunesu records wartime memories from this side of the Pacific. A small number of Japanese families who settled in Chemainus on Vancouver Island in the early years of the century gradually created a community with a Japanese language school, a judo hall, and a traditional bathhouse. But in 1942, they were sent away to internment camps. It was not until 1991, when a reunion was organized to celebrate the unveiling of murals documenting the history of Chemainus (including its Japanese Canadian settlers), that the former residents returned. Based on interviews with many who attended the 1991 reunion, Lang has written a series of biographical vignettes documenting the Japanese community. O-Bon in Chimunesu is not a work of oral history. As Lang acknowledges in her introduction, she has "adopted fiction techniques" to tell the stories of the thirteen people she profiles. The result is a surprisingly readable and convincing account of a forgotten community.
Peter Oliva’s novel The City of Yes develops two parallel stories: the adventures of a Canadian in contemporary Japan, and the account of an adventurer named Ranald MacDonald who was imprisoned in Japan in 1848. The link between these stories is a Japanese man named Endo (later Enzo), mentor to the Canadian traveller and supposed discoverer of archival materials relating to MacDonald.
The plot line dealing with the contemporary Canadian records his life in Saitama through the course of a year. With the exception of his unusual part-time job as an itinerant Santa and his inexplicable obsession with Japanese insects, this gaijin has a predictable set of experiences: he teaches English to earnest but uncomprehending students, falls in love with an elusive Japanese beauty, laughs at Japlish, and discovers the intricate layers of meaning in the kanji. While his mentor and alter ego Endo/Enzo dabbles in history and etymology, the Canadian protagonist muddles through the minor crises of everyday life in a strange land. Meanwhile, through the device of Endo’s discovery of archival materials, Oliva introduces the parallel story of Ranald MacDonald. MacDonald was a real man and he did go to Japan, but Oliva’s account is (as he acknowledges in the epilogue) "a combination of history, myth and pure speculation." The chapters dealing with MacDonald are dotted with allusions to Silence, Endo Shusaku’s novel about the imprisonment and eventual apostasy of a a seventeenth-century Portuguese priest. These links range from the name "Endo" to the supposed discovery in MacDonald’s papers of a drawing "that approximated the Japanese pictograph for silence." Oliva even has MacDonald step on a fumie, an image of Christ set in the floor; this is the act of renunciation that the protagonist of Silence must ultimately perform. I am not sure what the allusions to Silence are supposed to achieve, other than to demonstrate Oliva’s familiarity with Japanese literature. Endo’s novel is preoccupied with the necessity of faith and the ineluctable nature of sin, but neither of these matters much in The City of Yes.
In the early chapters, there is much discussion of dictionaries, for Endo/Enzo is an amateur lexicographer. Yet, despite this self-conscious focus on words, The City of Yes contains an irritating number of diction errors: "quarter off" instead of "cordon off," "King James edition" instead of "version," "dallies" instead of "eddies," to offer just a few examples. There are problems with the Japanese words, too: "mental hospital," seishin byoin, turns into senshin biyoin, which means "devotion beauty parlour." Imprecision of this kind, which makes reading The City of Yes a bumpy ride, is regrettable, for Oliva’s material, particularly when it touches on MacDonald, is genuinely fascinating.
Underlying these four books, different though they are, is the belief that counter-memories represent the past more truthfully than the narratives of official history. Yet precisely because counter-memories contain those unique and acute traces of the past, they, too, are incomplete and fragmentary. Perhaps the struggle between official history and counter-memory—what Yoneyama calls the "dialectics of memory"—will bring us closer to the truth of the past, but we will never arrive at it.
- Endgame Tap-Dancing by Kerry McSweeney
Books reviewed: Barney's Version by Mordecai Richler
- Beyond the Words by Barbara Dancygier
Books reviewed: Metaphors We Live By by Mark Johnson and George Lakoff, Past and Present of the Verbs to Read and to Write by Emilia Ferreiro, and Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey by Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht
- Literary Exchanges by Louise Ladouceur
Books reviewed: In Translation: The Gabrielle Roy-Joyce Marshall Correspondence by Jane Everett and A Secret Between Us by Daniel Poliquin and Donald Winkler
- Just Before the Fall by H T
Books reviewed: Shi-shi-etko by Nicola I. Campbell, The Girl from Chimel by Rigoberta Menchu, and The Red Sash by Jean E. Pendziwol
- Narrating BC by Joel Martineau
Books reviewed: West by Northwest: British Columbia Short Stories by David Stouck and Myler Wilkinson, Wilderness Beginnings by Rose Hertel Falkenhagen, and Talk and Log: Wilderness Politics in British Columbia, 1965-96 by Jeremy Wilson
MLA: Fisher, Susan. Japanese Memories. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 23 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #170-171 (Autumn/Winter 2001), Nature / Culture. (pg. 250 - 252)
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