It’s just over five years now since the north-eastern region of Japan was hit by an earthquake, a tsunami and then issues with the nuclear power plants located in the area. However, the effects of these disasters can still be seen, and it’s unlikely that locals will forget what happened any time soon. Further afield, though, Fukushima isn’t in the headlines any more, which makes today’s book even more important, as it offers a reminder of what happened and the scale of the disaster – even if the way it does so is slightly unorthodox…
In Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure (translated by Doug Slaymaker with Akiko Takenaka, review copy courtesy of Columbia University Press), Japanese writer Hideo Furukawa, a native of the Tohoku region where Fukushima is located, attempts to come to terms with the disaster which has befallen his home prefecture. Abandoning some of the projects he was working on, he instead spends hours in front of the television, unable to stop looking at the tragedy unfolding. Even weeks afterwards, he finds it hard to take in the magnitude of the destruction.
In the end, he decides that the only way to work through his feelings is to go and see it all for himself. After a conversation with one of his publishers, he gets together a small group and sets off on a road trip, heading north to penetrate as far into the disaster zone as possible. Once in Fukushima, however, there are several additions to the team; quite apart from the horses Furukawa and his colleagues see roaming around, the writer soon finds himself in the company of another native of the area – a character from one of his earlier books…
From the start, the reader is never entirely sure what kind of work this is, and that may be completely intentional. Furukawa is a very diverse writer who works across a number of styles (my only previous encounter with his work was a short story included in the Comma Press anthology The Book of Tokyo – in ‘Model T Frankenstein’, a monster attacks Tokyo…). While Horses, Horses… starts off as non-fiction, we’re never entirely comfortable in trusting everything the writer/narrator says, and he’s not afraid to go off in unexpected directions.
Nevertheless, a large part of the book is concerned with the trip itself, with Furukawa needing to see the effects of the tsunami with his own eyes:
We were overwhelmed by the sense of how powerful it was. The scene spread out before us, everything wiped clean away. Such power to wipe out everything. There are no words for it. We didn’t just feel it, we were pummeled by it. I am ashamed to admit it – I want to spit at myself in disgust – but I was looking at the scene as though it were a great spectacle. I thought of air raids. And atomic bomb sites. It hit me like a smack to the side of the head: it’s just like a city in wartime.
pp.41/2 (Columbia University Press, 2016)
He describes areas of land swept clear by the giant waves, with wrecks of boats piled up on the land. There’s also an eerie silence haunting the coast, due, he belatedly realises, to the absence of seagulls – the birds seem to have vanished…
In addition to the physical effects of the tsunami, the small group also sees the consequences of the damage to the power stations. The supermarkets are well-stocked several weeks after the events, but there are noticeable gaps on the shelves – the fresh produce is missing as the local crops are no longer trusted. Outside, as the group gets further inside the warning perimeters, more and more people can be seen wearing face masks, and school children are kept inside all day for fear of radiation poisoning (while in the school playground, bulldozers remove the contaminated top layers of soil).
All this is impressive enough, but what makes Horses, Horses… really stand out is the way Furukawa branches out from this central narrative. In the middle section, there’s a truly Sebaldian digression into Japanese history, with tangents on The Kojiki, Japanese myths and the gods, while we are also treated to thoughts on the warring states period and the role of the horses for which the region is famed. There are definite shades of The Rings of Saturn in the way Furukawa uses these details to supplement the description of his journey, and he has an excellent eye for detail.
In terms of style, Horses, Horses… also owes a lot to the traditional Japanese I-Novel with its confessional first-person narrative. The reader is never quite sure how much is true and how much is fiction, but that doesn’t really matter. Furukawa uses a compelling, slightly shell-shocked voice, and the sense of fragmentation this creates is a reflection of the writer’s fragile mental state, particularly in the early stages of the book.
One of the other constant strands running through the book is one of Furukawa’s earlier works, The Holy Family (it wasn’t until I read Slaymaker’s afterword that I believed that it was real…), and perhaps the turning point of the story is the sudden appearance of one of the characters, Inuzuka Gyūichirō, in the writer’s car. Author and creator talk things over (while his fellow passengers are oblivious, or asleep), their conversation often focusing on time and its vagaries, with frequent mention of expressions such as ‘out of time’, ‘time shifts’ and ‘spirited-away time’. Furukawa also takes the time to explain the book itself:
Think of official history as a book. A book comes into view; it seems to suggest that it has no blank spaces, no margins. But it does, it contains blank spaces. In those spaces I cram my own notes, copious notes that are not yet articulated thoughts, and in the end weave a new book solely from the notes in the margins. (p.79)
The Holy Family, then, is another, a different history, one in which the writer reclaims a central position for his home region.
What gradually becomes clear over the course of Horses, Horses… is that this is Furukawa’s intention – he’s constantly circling around a central topic, that of marginalisation. Fukushima is, to put it bluntly, the sticks, always has been (right from the time of The Kojiki), and that’s still very much the case today. One of the sick ironies of the March 2011 disasters is that the radiation is leaking from power plants imposed on the region, constructed to supply energy not for Tohoku but for the Tokyo area. Furukawa is determined to focus on his home region and make sure it doesn’t fade back into the margins of national history.
Horses, Horses… is an excellent work on many levels, but we repeatedly return to the scenes of devastation from the tsunami. Furukawa is just like us, a helpless onlooker – in the face of a natural disaster, there’s very little we can do, but feel a sense of horror, and guilt:
I am in no position to ask myself questions, but I ask myself anyway: why am I not among the victims? All of those people over there are swallowed by death, touched and caressed by the god of death, but me? How did I get off not dying? Guilt. To overdo the description, guilty conscience. Why is it that all those people over there had to be victims? (p.22)
Unlike most, however, Furukawa decided to try to make sense of it all by concentrating those emotions into a book. And a very good one it is too.