- Rui Umezawa (Author)
The Truth About Death and Dying. Doubleday Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Janice Brown
From the title alone, some readers might expect Umezawa’s book to contain a study of severe trauma, the final stages of terminal illness, or perhaps, at best, a new-age treatise on how to cope with old age and death. In a sense, The Truth About Death and Dying does touch on all these matters, but in fictional form. A finely crafted first novel, The Truth brings the extremities of human experience into blunt relief. The storyline follows the fortunes, or misfortunes, of a Japanese family caught up in the mindlessness of twentieth-century war and violence. Focusing on brothers Toshi and Kei Hayakawa, brought to America as young children, The Truth delineates the tragi-comedy of the diasporic family caught between two cultures and three generations. Although the cross-cultural/generational conflict found in much Asian North American fiction is very much a part of The Truth, the author, Rui Umezawa, succeeds in building another perspective. Deftly intertwining the stories and memories of family members, parents and grandparents, pasts and presents, Umezawa demonstrates not only the confusion, misunderstanding, and hardship of transnational lives but also the interconnectedness of all phenomena and living beings.
Although the Buddhist priest who gives voice to this message near the beginning of the novel casts this notion in a placidly sombre light, Umezawa demonstrates that between things and people connections seldom occur in reasonable ways, and in fact, can be random, brutal, or crazy. Shoji, expatriate professor and father of Toshi and Kei, would be the first to agree. As the novel opens, Shoji lies dying, with his adult son, the autistic Toshi, at his side. Dwelling for years in the lofty realms of theoretical physics, Shoji has tried hard to ignore the existence of the absurd or irrational. His own life, however, reads as testament to such experience—the grotesque demise of his own father at the hands of a fanatical military policeman; the freak event that robbed him of his first love in wartime Japan; the unexplained autism of his eldest son, Toshi; and finally the cancer that appears from nowhere to claim him. Catastrophes are happening all the time, and physics and Buddhism seem to be equal partners in Umezawa’s attempt to make sense of the chaos and constant change that characterize the lives and deaths of the Hayakawa family.
Shoji is not the only one bound by what Umezawa calls life’s trivial ironies. Kei, a talented rock musician in Toronto, cannot bear to listen to his own music, while Toshi, an enigma and disappointment to his brilliant father, makes every effort to understand the parent who misjudges him. Their mother, Mitsuyo, an outspoken iconoclast in Japan, is unable to adapt to the new language and way of life she finds in America and Canada. Similarly, her own mother, Hanako, the wife of a diplomat, finds living with her daughter’s family in America disorienting. Having survived the bombings and firestorms of World War II, Hanako perishes in a house fire in Milwaukee as she attempts to rescue a cat. Umezawa’s gradual revelation of the inextricable ties and bonds that join the Hayakawas to each other and to the worlds they inhabit, including those of American and Canadian friends, families, and lovers, makes The Truth a dazzling tour-de-force. Even so, Umezawa asks, in the face of death, how can anything human hold meaning over eternity? The last view of Toshi is at a beach where he and Kei have gone to cast Shoji’s ashes, an act which evokes the fate of Japanese folktale hero, Urashima Taro, and his transformation into ashes on the seashore. Umezawa, however, adds a new element: the sight of a baby being wheeled along in a stroller. At this unexpected sight, Toshi smiles, and the sky clears.
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Books reviewed: Hiroshima Traces: Time, Space, and the Dialectic of Memory by Lisa Yoneyama, Narrative as Counter-Memory: A Half-Century of Postwar Writing in Germany and Japan by Reiko Tachiban, O-Bon in Chimunesu: A Community Remembered by Catherine Lang, and The City of Yes by Peter Oliva
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Books reviewed: Landscapes of Encounter: The Portrayal of Catholicism in the Novels of Brian Moore by Liam Gearon
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MLA: Brown, Janice. The Truth. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 24 Oct. 2014.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #179 (Winter 2003), Literature & War. (pg. 180 - 181)
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