‘Heaven and Hell’ by Takarabe Toriko (Review)

My first two Women in Translation Month reviews this week looked at the experience of women in wartime Europe, with a journey to the frozen east and some calmer stories from the western front.  However, today’s post shifts the action to Asia, with an autobiographical novel set in Japanese-occupied Manchuria.  The setting may be different, but some things remain the same – when it comes to times of conflict, women have to be even more careful than usual…

Takarabe Toriko’s Heaven and Hell: A Novel of a Manchurian Childhood (translated by Phyllis Birnbaum, review copy courtesy of University of Hawai’i Press) is a short two-part novel, a fictionalised account of the writer’s own childhood.  Takarabe, better known as a poet, draws on her experiences to tell the story of Masako, a young girl who moves with her parents to the city of Jiamusi in the far north of China shortly after her birth.  With her father Yasahirō often absent (first on army duties, then founding a settlement in the Manchurian wilderness), Masako is raised both by her mother, Yukie, and a range of local helpers, and enjoys her privileged bilingual upbringing.

Eventually, though, the tide of war turns, and when the Japanese surrender brings the threat of Russian invasion from the north, the family joins the throng of refugees seeking relative safety in the larger city of Shinkyō (Changchun).  After the comfort of her childhood in the provinces, life on the losing side is an eye-opener, with the social order inverted, leaving the Japanese at the bottom of the pile.  When you add a Typhoid epidemic to that, not to mention a harsh winter to come, Masako’s chances of making it out of the city alive are in the balance.

English readers will no doubt date the start of the Second World War to 1939, but other countries have a very different impression of the conflict, and in East Asia it was merely the continuation of the wars of occupation that started earlier in the 1930s.  Heaven and Hell provides an example of a typical settler family, just one of the thousands pouring into China to help shore up Japan’s new colonies, and paints a picture of a small town swollen into a city by the arrival of the foreigners and the locals who appeared in their wake, hoping to benefit from the opportunity.

There are glimpses of the political situation in the first part of the book, including the army’s attempts to eradicate the Chinese bandits plaguing the area, but Takarabe’s focus is more on her fictional alter-ego and her early years.  Jiamusi is her home town, and the hotel (where her father is the nominal – absent – manager) is her playground, with the staff indulging the little miss with snacks and games.  While there are hints of darker events off-stage, Masako’s biggest childhood problems actually come from the weather:

On days when it was at least -40 degrees C, I felt that the joints of my hands and feet had frozen by the time I reached school, and there was pain every time I tried to bend them.  I believed that the fluids inside my joints had truly hardened, causing more pain.  When I arrived at school, the classroom was a warm 20 degrees C, but I still had to force myself not to cry as I sat completely still after my arrival.  The frost on my eyelashes dripped down on me as my body slowly thawed, and I felt my blood starting to flow freely again.  On those days, for the first time, I actually could sense that my body had half turned to ice.
p.36 (University of Hawai’i Press, 2018)

The walk to the Japanese school she attends is not a pleasant journey in the Manchurian winter…

It’s in the second section of the book that Masako realises that the Japanese existence on the continent has always been a precarious one.  Now the occupiers are at the mercy of the new rulers, the Russians, and Masako, still an innocent child, is soon to learn that women have much to fear in this new world:

“Why does it have to be so terrible for her?” I asked, going over to Mrs. Wada.  “She didn’t do anything bad.  Won’t the Soviet soldiers be tainted?”
“The men aren’t unclean.”  She gave a most ridiculous reply.  “It’s only the woman who’s unclean.” (p.87)

In an attempt to protect Masako from male attentions, her parents shave her head and call her Masuo, and she enjoys her time as a boy, roaming the streets of the big city with her gang.  However, sexual attention still comes her way, just not in the way we might have expected.

This second part of the novel gradually turns darker, with disease stalking the refugees, and while we know from the frame the writer uses which members of Masako’s family survive, it’s still heart-breaking to see the characters drop like flies.  With the temperatures so far below zero, when someone does die, all the survivors can do is take them outside to avoid further contamination, and then leave them there.  The sight of fields full of bodies is a sobering one – what awaits in the spring is another matter entirely.

Heaven and Hell provides interesting insights into a time and place many westerners will know little about, yet in truth I don’t think it really works as well as it might.  While the idea of the two-part, before-and-after novel is interesting, this split focus actually prevents the writer from going into depth with either half of her story.  I feel that the book would have worked better either as a memoir of the writer’s days in Jiamusi or as a story of her refugee struggles, especially given its brevity (around 130 pages).  An interesting contrast can be made here with my first read for the week, Shadows on the Tundra, where Dalia Grinkevičiūtė’s (real) story explores a shorter time-frame in far more detail, making for a much better account of the war-time experience.

Nevertheless, Heaven and Hell is still an interesting look at a different side of the Second World War to the one most Anglophone readers will be used to. The novel generally avoids the actual fighting to show how a child sees occupation and flight, and even if Masako survives to tell us the tale, these are experiences that last a lifetime – and that, no doubt, is what Takarabe was trying to convey.

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