The Cake Tree in the Ruins by Akiyuki Nosaka
Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori
It’s the 13th year of the Japanese Literature Challenge, hosted by Meredith of Dolce Belezza – it runs from January through to the end of March – find out more here. I hope to read more than one book for it, but will begin with one that caught my eye at the library recently – being a Pushkin Press edition it did stand out amongst the other paperbacks!
In 1945, Nosaka lived through the Allied firebombing of Kobe, losing his mother and father in the raid, and his sister shortly afterward, becoming one of the yakeato generation (the generation of the ashes). This collection of short stories was inspired by his memories of that time. Nosaka died in 2015.
The short preface explains that on 15th August 1945, Emperor Hirohito announced the surrender of Japan to the Allies – this was broadcast on the radio, and is considered as the day WWII ended. It is celebrated in Japan each year as a memorial for the war dead, and more recently as a day to pray for peace. It coincides with the traditional Obon festival in which Japanese honour their ancestors. That day and these events became immediately apparent when I turned the page to the first story, which is set on the 15th of August 1945. I would go on to discover that the same is true for all twelve of the stories collected here – which adds powerful resonance to the tales.
We begin with the tale of The Whale That Fell in Love with a Submarine. A Japanese submarine is hiding submerged in an inlet, and the captain doesn’t believe the surrender broadcast to be true; he is set on continuing to search for and sink American vessels. Meanwhile, an oversized, mateless, male sardine whale finds the submarine and begins to play with it. The whale won’t leave the submarine alone, swimming alongside when they go out searching for American ships to sink. You sense that this story is unlikely to have a good end – in this case for the whale – who takes the depth-charge dropped saving the submarine.
I’ve told you the ending of this first story to illustrate one of the major themes in this collection – that of sacrifice. This notion also occurs strongly in The Red Dragonfly and the Cockroach, in which the cockroach is a pet, but the Red Dragonfly is an old and slow training airplane, now expendable, as were their young pilots who had been effectively radicalised in today’s terminology.
Even in the cockpit of the Red Dragonfly as it rose into the air, the youth thought only of his mother. She could take pride in him dying an honourable death as a kamikaze pilot, and with his soldier’s pension she would never have to sell vegetables again. Gazing at the photograph of him, brave and smiling, surely she could live content.
You can’t expect a straight-forward tale of a kamikaze run though. Nosaka takes us through the young pilot’s mind, as run after run is thwarted when they can’t find any ships to die crashing into.
Other major themes of these stories are starvation and waiting. The second tale, The Parrot and The Boy, has a child in a bomb shelter with only his pet parrot for company, waiting for his parents to join him, as firebombs had rained down around them. As the boy loses his will to communicate, the parrot keeps up his side of the conversation, until someone comes, if they will. In The Elephant and Its Keeper, we see a zookeeper’s struggle to keep his beloved creature alive, the one creature they hadn’t been able to cull. Nosaka tells us in an aside:
Too many undernourished people and animals appear in these stories, I know, but it was wartime, after all. There were probably some plump people with glossy skin even at that time, but you never saw them among the regular citizens.
A Balloon in August was rather different to many of the other stories, describing how Japanese children were involved in manufacturing giant balloons from glue and paper, which would be filled with hydrogen and set loose into the jet stream towards America, ten percent reaching their target, but few causing much actual damage.
I am once again reminded of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 (see here), which was Vonnegut’s response to his survival of the firebombing of Dresden as a PoW. Billy Pilgrim’s mantra, ‘So it goes’ would aptly apply here too, with that certain inevitability in many of these stories, often wistful, be it leading to starvation, survival, or doing the honourable thing!
This story collection turned out to be profound and moving in its exploration of the states of mind of the different Japanese protagonists on that day. The translation is elegantly handled with simple clarity by Ginny Tapley Takemori (who also translated Convenience Store Woman – reviewed here). It is not always an easy read, but I would highly recommend these short stories, and will look out for Pushkin Press’s forthcoming translation of Nosaka’s novel Grave of the Fireflies. (9/10)