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A 1970s Japanese Novel Leading the Way to Ferrante

Category: Art & Culture,Books

TERRITORY OF LIGHT
By Yuko Tsushima

At first glance, “Territory of Light” seems part of the same cultural moment that has produced recent novels exploring, with unapologetic honesty, the raw interior of the female psyche. Could the Japanese novelist Yuko Tsushima have been inspired by the works of Jenny Offill and Elena Ferrante, whose protagonists — young mothers negotiating life in the wake of marital betrayal — mirror that of Tsushima’s own book?

The answer is no. Tsushima, who died in 2016, first published monthly installments of what would become “Territory of Light” a full four decades ago, when she too was a single mother struggling to eke out an existence in Tokyo. The fact that the novel, which has been elegantly translated into English by Geraldine Harcourt, seems to be in direct dialogue with contemporary novels of motherhood, however, suggests both its deep prescience and the enduring relevance of its insights.

Tsushima chronicles one year in the life of a young mother and daughter, beginning on the evening when the unnamed narrator is forced to look for an apartment after her husband leaves her. She finally chooses a building named “Fujino,” which is also her husband’s surname and causes her to be “constantly mistaken for the proprietor.”

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This is not exactly a coincidence, the narrator admits: “It is possible that the building’s name evoked the closeness of my ties to my husband and that I impulsively yielded to that sensation.” The sensation seems to envelop the narrator, as if in a thick fog, through which she feebly tries to find her way. Apprehension of her new life feels like “an invisible, rickety, misshapen mass that not only kept its precarious balance but was actually sending out roots and even tentative new shoots.” It grows to consume and paralyze the narrator, who staggers through daily chores, barely able to keep herself from dissolution.

“Why were children the only ones who ever got to melt down?” she seethes. Fury gives way to darker fantasies. Sleep-deprived and tending to her wailing toddler daughter in the middle of the night, she wonders if maybe some part of her wished the child — who, after all, resembles her father — were dead. In another moment, she embraces her daughter’s body, amazed “that the blessing of my daughter being alive had been granted to the likes of me.”

To the narrator, divorce is, at first, the kind of cataclysmic rupture that confirms profound personal failing. “Nothing goes right for a woman on her own,” an elderly male professor counsels. Her husband owes her money and seems unlikely to ever pay child support. The insidiousness of masculine entitlement is such that Fujino, an unpredictable lout, still plays the victim while she shoulders the bulk of domestic responsibilities, acting as both mother and father.

Tsushima writes in prose so bare and vivid that even banal details acquire a visceral vibrancy: Summer leaves give off “tiny gleams that flitted like insects” and the narrator’s dreams succeed one another, “dim as magic lantern slides.” Throughout the novel, she plays with light and dark, as if grappling with the question of what should be illuminated in a society in which the grotesqueries of patriarchy are half-hidden, open secrets that become the dark condition of existence.

What emerges is a story that searchingly inhabits the lives of women without sentimentality or self-pity. When the narrator declares that she wanted to give herself a pat on the head for “having managed to protect my daughter from the upheaval around her with the quantity of light,” it is as if Tsushima herself has momentarily taken up the voice of the narrator in order to announce herself. In putting pen to the blank page, she has opened up a territory that feels, in some small way, like a bright room of her own.


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