Steel Skeletons

Hideo Furukawa, trans. Doug Slaymaker & Akiko Takenaka, Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure: A Tale That Begins with Fukushima

Columbia University Press, 160pp, £14.95, ISBN 9780231178693

reviewed by Dan Bradley

As one of the first literary responses to the Great East Japan earthquake of March 2011, Hideo Furukawa’s new novel is characterised by a visceral emotive power, laying bare the frustrations, despair and hope of one author’s attempt to make sense of unimaginable loss and devastation. It also bears the shortcomings that might be expected from a work produced in only four months.

The inhuman scale of the earthquake, tsunami and accident at the Fukushima nuclear plant, where over twenty thousand people lost their lives and almost three hundred thousand were displaced, challenges any novelist who decides to submit their account. When media coverage offers so much instantaneous access to events as they unfold, what purpose does the writer serve? What place is there for recounting that which seems to have already been exhausted, having been reviewed and repeated a thousand times? We are all increasingly familiar with the experience of disasters refracted through a multitude of screens, social media platforms and devices. Indeed, back in 2011 it was Facebook that first showed me images of the tsunami-ravaged Miyagi prefecture, where I had lived and worked for several years.

Furukawa’s response in Horses is to do unexpected and provocative things with fiction and documentary, incorporating the disorientation of actual experience into the act of recounting. Thus, although the text begins with the author setting out to write a memoir of his return to Fukushima, this linear personal style quickly collapses in on itself, structurally and temporally. The text opens with its own conception: Furukawa hears the tragic news while in the US, but is compelled to return to Japan – to his childhood home in Fukushima – to write. An inner voice delivers a clear command: ‘Go there.’ Once in Japan, however, the author immediately suffers from ‘temporary aphasia’, struck dumb by what he witnesses first-hand and what arrives with him filtered through social media.

This experience is crucial to Horses: as its translators Doug Slaymaker and Akiko Takenaka explain, Furukawa’s work recounts

‘the common experience of contemporary Japan: living the surreal experience of physics-defying images unfolding across innumerable screens . . . ships on roads, boats on schools, waves surging through rice fields.’

In one significant scene, the author is driving through the obliterated landscape in the company of three colleagues from his publisher, coolly observing the desolation through the window. Buildings are ‘reduced to steel skeletons’; although they remain in place, they seem to be ‘not there’. Motorcycles are ‘crumpled like foil’; offices are ‘turned inside-out’. Then, the author notices someone else in the back seat, ‘tightly squeezed into that space where one expects the armrest’. This new member of their party is Inuzuka Gyuichiro, the oldest brother from The Holy Family, Furukawa’s 2008 novel that imagined an alternate history for the Tohoku region where he was born.

Shattering the documentary account, this radical metatextual incursion is partly explained by Fukurawa’s literary affinities, and his fondness for the playful approach of authors like Haruki Murakami and Gabriel García Márquez. But the desired effect here is deeply serious. Just as he felt compelled to return to Japan, Fukurawa recounts experiencing a ‘command’ to write. ‘OK’, he responds, ‘I will write this. I am writing: Inuzuka Gyuichiro was there. A fifth passenger. [...] But if I write that, I've got fiction, and this essay turns into a novel.’

Throughout Horses Furukawa uses shifts like this to tear the memoir apart, to force upon us the sense that time and reality, and even language, no longer function as they might be expected to in the earthquake's aftermath. If, as he asserts, ‘records that are that rationally structured do not count as history’, then techniques like those that he employs are a part of an ethics of form; the decision that a chaotic, disorientating style is perhaps the most faithful way to write about the disaster.

Horses is a work that writhes under the strain of its material, incessantly shape-shifting. The text aspires to exist in a disorienting ‘spirited-away time’, jumping back and forth along real and imagined timelines of the novel and the author’s journey to Fukushima; switching between fiction and memoir, official and reimagined Japanese histories, and interspersed with dialogue between the author and characters from The Holy Family. All of this is held together – barely – by a tale of the inherited suffering of Japanese horses.

Even its translators admit that Horses is ‘compelling and important for all the reasons that is can be exasperating and demanding’. It is, they continue, ‘a sort of memoir, sort of fiction, sort of essay, something of a road trip; it can be chaotic and overwhelming.’ In this respect, the text risks lapsing into a disorder exceeding that which its ethics demand. This problem is compounded by others: for instance, one immediate challenge for the English reader is the lack of any available translation of The Holy Family, the earlier text that seems to haunt this one. Furukawa's theatre background and experience as a performance poet also favour a meandering and conversational prose style, a challenge ably met by the co-translators, who succeed in retaining the original text’s raw edges and provocative shifts in tone. This looseness writing was no doubt caused, in part, by the hurried publication schedule, which one might easily miss in light of the fact that it has taken another five years for the English translation to appear.

One useful contrast to Horses is Ruth Ozeki's complex and thought-provoking 2013 novel A Tale for the Time Being, which demonstrates what a patient, meticulous yet daring approach can do with the same subject matter. A Tale of the Time Being weaves together the discovered diary of a teenage Japanese girl with the experience of an author named Ruth who finds it on the shore, lighting on themes of Buddhism, quantum mechanics, the history of the Second World War, literary and linguistic theory, and much more. In many ways, Ozeki’s is the more elegantly structured, enjoyable and successful novel, and yet it lacks something that gives Horses its power: the white-hot rage and grief of a writer who has returned home to find his entire country destroyed. In Furukawa's work, there is no safe literary distance from which to observe; we are plunged into the experience along with him.

In this respect, for all of its shortcomings – especially for readers unfamiliar with Furukawa's other work – Horses is faithful to his values and goals as a writer. After the disaster, Furukawa heavily involved himself in community projects that gave voices to the survivors. In Iwate and his hometown of Koriyama, Furukawa runs the Tadayoumanabiya or ‘Drifting Classroom’ writing workshops, with guest authors including Haruki Murakami, Mieko Kawakami and Hiromi Kawakami, as well as notable artists, musicians and translators. This idea of channelling the voices of the unheard through writing is key to understanding Horses. Furukawa is scathing about authorised Japanese history, something he condemns as ‘nothing more than a history of killing people’ and, elsewhere, is equally outraged by the suffering inflicted on military horses throughout Japan’s history. The connection Furukawa is trying to make is that suffering inflicted on the innocent by the powerful often goes unremarked, and that a writer's role is to bring this injustice to light any way they can.

In a Japan Times interview, Furukawa asserted that ‘there's no point in writing a book without hope’. Novelists, he went on,

‘are artists, and usually imagination comes between them and reality [. . .] But when reality becomes something far beyond our imagination, we are exposed, rendered naked and reality moves closer to art. We must then confront reality directly.’

In refusing to simplify or polish its structure, conceal the writer's struggles or look away from the horror of the aftermath, Horses transcends its flaws to become an important piece of post-3/11 literature. It offers a unique, compelling and clear-eyed account of a tragedy that, for those not directly affected, risks becoming another far-off disaster scrolling along the bottom of a news feed.