My first twentieth-century choice for Women in Translation Month actually took us back to the tenth century, but today’s book is one with a more contemporary setting. We’re up to the 1970s now, with a story focusing on a young woman trying to start afresh. This is a year in her life, full of troubles, colours and, of course, light…
Yuko Tsushima’s Territory of Light (translated by Geraldine Harcourt) begins with an unnamed woman moving into an apartment on the top floor of an old building. Blindsided by her husband Fujino’s request that they separate, she refuses his suggestions of places to live (including the idea of moving back in with her mother). By finding a place of her own, she sends a signal that she wants to make a clean break.
However, this is Japan in the late 1970s, and the woman is unlikely to have it all her own way. Not only is she struggling to care for her three-year-old daughter, she must also hold down a full-time job without a comprehensive support network to assist her. It also doesn’t help that her estranged husband, while unwilling to help financially, refuses to disappear from her life completely (except when she actually needs something). Still, as she is to discover, even in the darkest moments, there’s usually light somewhere, if you know how to look.
Territory of Light is a fairly short novel in twelve parts, covering one year in the main character’s life. This is no coincidence as the book was originally serialised monthly, between 1978 and 1979, in the literary magazine Gunzo. Each part has its own title, suggesting a collection of short stories (and they could be read as such, at a stretch), but they actually form a cohesive whole, continuing the story of the woman’s turbulent year.
The first part focuses on the joy the woman experiences on finally finding her new home. Occupying the whole of the top floor, the apartment is flooded with light from the windows on all sides, and both she and her daughter feel happier in this bright environment. There’s a palpable sense of freedom, and she’s determined to move on:
I felt as though I had before me an invisible, rickety, misshapen mass that not only kept its precarious balance but was actually sending out roots and even tentative new shoots that only my eyes could see. Having been presented with this unstable object, I was starting to grow too attached to it to be able to slip back into married life with Fujino as if nothing had happened. The way he spoke to me, as my husband, didn’t feel right any more. Must I go on, still, listening to that distant and increasingly incomprehensible voice until he decided to break off ties?
p.23 (Penguin Classics, 2017)
However, reality soon intrudes on this idyll. As everyday life continues, she begins to find her daughter more of a burden than a joy, having to cope with frequent illnesses and bed-wetting (not to mention chronic sleep deprivation). To make things worse, she soon realises that apart from her mother, she has nobody to turn to for help – her friends were all his, and are no longer part of her life.
This is nothing, though, compared to the problems caused by the husband himself. The writer shows us a thoroughly selfish man who initiated the separation to allow him to follow his artistic pursuits. Not only has he decided to part ways with his wife, he has done so while owing her money and having none to support his child. This doesn’t stop him wanting the best of both worlds, and he sees no problem with popping over to see his daughter when it suits him.
It’s clear that the separation is probably for the best, but it’s made harder by the fact that the society of the time isn’t overly sympathetic, with pressure all around, both subtle and overt, not to go through with the divorce. The woman receives phone calls from Fujino’s friends and colleagues, and after inviting her to lunch, even her husband’s old professor adds his voice to the throng:
The professor said: ‘No doubt there are circumstances no one else is privy to, but perhaps you should calm down a little and listen to what young Fujino has to say. There several divorcées among my own circle, and it’s turned out to be a sad mistake in every case. Believe me, nothing goes right for a woman on her own. (p.50)
All around her, when she has time to look up, there are warnings that these opinions might be right. Territory of Light contains a number of accidents, even deaths, often connected with unsupported women. It seems as if life is determined to show her that life as a single mum is not to be taken lightly.
An impressive aspect of the novel is the writer’s depiction of the woman herself. Tsushima paints a blunt portrait, with no whitewashing, of a woman who is far from the perfect mother. She frequently leaves the child at home alone, occasionally getting drunk in the process, and when her nerves are stretched she’s not above screaming at, and even hitting her. The combination of work and caring for a (very) demanding child stretches her to her limits, and while we sympathise, there are times when that understanding is strained somewhat. I suspect that each reader will have their own level of tolerance for her behaviour, with some far more sympathetic than others…
Territory of Light is short, but dense, and Harcourt’s measured prose reflects the light and dark nature of the writing. The main source of the light is, of course, the apartment itself, the territory of the title:
But once you got the door open, the apartment was filled with light at any hour of the day. The kitchen and dining area immediately inside had a red floor, which made the aura all the brighter. Entering from the dimness of the stairwell, you practically had to squint. (p.2)
However, the book is full of other examples, such as the blinding reflective glare of paint on the roof, the bright lights of a local festival one evening, a twinkling christmas tree and even a factory explosion. Set against these signs of hope are the dark dreams the woman has. Strange mixtures of death, sex, her husband and her daughter, they help her to process the troubles she faces every day.
An interesting, entertaining novel, Territory of Light is a slice of life from a time not too far distant (one wonders how would it have read at the time of its original publication). The protagonist has a hard life, but there are many bright spots: friends are made, help does arrive and life definitely goes on. In many ways, the novel is like a diary of the passage through a dark time, twelve stations on the road to freedom. Tsushima’s message, perhaps, is that no matter how difficult things get, there’s usually a light waiting for us at the other end of the tunnel. It just takes time to get there…