‘Trinity, Trinity, Trinity’ by Erika Kobayashi (Review)

After spending time in some rather distorted versions of Japan to kick off Women in Translation Month, we’re staying with that theme today, in some ways even doubling down on the tension and confusion.  The background for the story is the start of the 2020 2021 Tokyo Olympics, but the sport is actually a secondary consideration.  Instead, we’re looking beneath the shiny surface of Japan’s happy face to look at a problem the country has tried, unsuccessfully, to paper over, and which is now raising its ugly head in a rather disturbing manner…

Erika Kobayashi’s Trinity, Trinity, Trinity (translated by Brian Bergstrom, electronic review copy courtesy of Astra House) begins with an elderly woman waking up confused in a hospital bed.  After she falls onto the floor of her room, her family rushes in, making for three generations of women, as the TV in the background shows images of the torch relay.  After this brief prologue, we then switch to the main narrative voice for the novel, the bedridden woman’s mother, who has to go to work on what is supposed to be an extended national holiday.

On her way to the office, there are the first signs of a slightly alternate universe.  Quite apart from the intense heatwave, we see a suspicious man on the subway and frequent mentions of Geiger counters.  The woman is already stressed enough about her work and her mother (and her period arrives, just for good measure), yet her worries prove to be misplaced.  You see, as the day passes, it becomes ever clearer that it’s herself she needs to be far more concerned about…

Trinity, Trinity, Trinity is an intriguing, albeit at times confusing, novel of a country and its fraught relationship with radiation.  The obvious inspiration for the story is the way Japan has tackled the 3/11 triple disaster, but in Kobayashi’s novel, this is just the latest in a series of events that is bringing the world to a tipping point.  The concept underpinning the story is a new sickness, Trinity, that appears to be spreading through older people:

During this time, elderly people suffering from dementia began, one by one, to walk around holding “accursed stones” in their hands. Or at least that’s what people started calling them. What the old people were holding were just rocks they’d picked up somewhere, but they were always shiny and black, and this eerie consistency led to the term “accursed stones.” It wasn’t clear exactly where the name itself came from.
p.41 (Astra House, 2022)

Those afflicted begin listening to the stones’ stories, and in later stages, the condition is marked by manic episodes and sudden bursts of energy.  We see old people terrorising the public, with shocked onlookers gawping as the incident is covered live on national television.  There’s a sense here of a reckoning, a punishment the country is owed for trying to forget its nuclear past.

Over a hot summer with a public on edge, paranoia kicks in, and the slightest incident tends to lead to disaster.  We see several examples of online flame wars, and older people, shunned by younger people in public, try to prove they’re not afflicted by the disease by acting younger than their years.  The tension builds and eventually leads to tragedy, with some unable to control themselves, seeking to silence anyone they deem a threat.

As much as it’s about the country, though, Trinity, Trinity, Trinity is also a story of women:

Would my daughter save me? Well, even if she didn’t, she might have a daughter, and that daughter might have a daughter, and that daughter might have a daughter, too. I imagined the single thread connecting me to my daughter and her daughter and to all the daughters to come, a thread connecting the past to the future that bound us together and gave me the strength to turn and unroll a bit more paper from the roll. (p.34)

The three generations of the family are are introduced early on.  There’s the grandmother in (and out of…) her hospital bed, and the mother, balancing work and trying to find out more about her own mother and her condition.  Appearing occasionally in the background is the daughter, slightly neglected and working through her own issues, problems her mother isn’t aware of until it’s too late.

The idea of the sickness is nicely done, and Kobayashi has her characters hearing voices of the past, the radioactive material telling stories of its journey from deep under the ground to various places around the world.  As we’re treated to tales of Marie Curie and A-bomb tests, the innocent natural resource tells a story of how it has been used for evil.  In many ways, the sickness is merely a precursor to future events, warning people of what’s to come.

Kobayashi is following in the footsteps of other Japanese writers in her concerns for the country’s future.  There are parallels here with Yū Miri’s Tokyo Ueno Station (tr. Morgan Giles) in its negative view of the Olympics and how they have diverted attention attention away from Japan’s deeper issues, and you can also find links with Yōko Tawada’s The Last Children of Tokyo (tr. Margaret Mitsutani) in terms of the prominence of the sickness, and of a country in terminal decline.  Trinity, Trinity, Trinity is perhaps most similar to Tomoyuki Hoshino’s Lonely Hearts Killer (tr. Adrienne Carey Hurley), in which the country is beset by a wave of psychosis and aggression.  It seems that if we go by the country’s writers, Japan has fairly gloomy prospects for the future.

There’s plenty to like about Kobayashi’s novel, but if I have one criticism, it’s that it does feel a little rushed at times.  A lot is packed into what is a shortish book, and that includes some info-dumping with the backstory of the stones.  The writer drags us along at breakneck speed towards an ending that perhaps needed a little more development, and I would have liked to learn a little more about some of the central characters, even if the claustrophobic and anonymous feeling was probably deliberate.  Also, the attempt to tie everything together through the three trinities (a disease, a code name and… something else I’ll leave for you to discover!) seems a little forced at times, linking everything a little too neatly.

Still, Trinity, Trinity, Trinity is an enjoyable read and a welcome addition to the growing collection of literary speculative fiction taking a rather more pessimistic view of Japanese society than the cheery cherry-blossom-adorned classics most readers are used to.  As the day nears its dramatic end, with the mother rushing to prevent disaster, we receive a chilling warning that there are certain disasters than can’t simply be buried and forgotten.  Unfortunately, humanity has a tendency to keep digging and unearthing them again – with unpredictable and often devastating results.

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