Sunday, June 22, 2014

Destroying Angels

Kyūsaku Yumeno was the pen name of a prolific Japanese writer who died in 1936 and whose work is apparently relatively little-known in the English-speaking world. Satori Ediciones in Spain has just published El infierno de las chicas (The Hell of Girls), a Spanish-language translation by Daniel Aguilar of the three dark, intricate stories that were originally collected in Japanese as Shōjo jigoku. As far as I can tell the stories have never appeared in English.

All three tales included here are narrated largely or exclusively in epistolary fashion, though in each case we read only one side of the correspondence. One story makes use of fictional news articles, and now and then letters from third parties are nested within the letters of the primary correspondent. The first story, "No tiene importancia," (It's of no importance) takes the form of a long missive written by one physician to another, describing the case of a young woman who has worked as a nurse, first for the recipient and then for the sender. We are told from the first page that the woman, who goes by the name of Yuriko Himegusa, has killed herself; the remainder of the story, which is approximately one hundred pages long, is in effect an extended flashback explaining this act. Himegusa was, to all appearances, a model employee: pleasant, conscientious, skillful, and beloved by her patients. She was also, it seems, a pathological liar, and the eventual unraveling of the skein of lies she has wound around herself proves her undoing. Or does it? Both Aguilar, the translator of this volume, and Nathen Clerici, the author of a recent doctoral dissertation (PDF here) on Yumeno, point out that the final outcome of the story is in fact highly ambiguous; no body is found, and the "suicide" (revealed, naturally, by means of a letter) may simply be one more deception.

From the point of view of the doctor narrating her history, Himegusa represents simply an unfortunate if rather bizarre case of female psychopathology. But Himegusa sees herself as a victim of misunderstanding and suspicion, and her suicide — real or faked — amounts to a salvo in the drawn-out battle between women and a male-dominated world. This aspect is heightened in the two remaining stories in the volume, in both of which the central female characters are at once victims and avengers of the crimes of men. The briefest, "Asesinatos por relevos," (roughly, Murders by relay) takes the form of a series of letters written by a young woman who works as a conductor or ticket-taker on a bus, in which she seeks to dissuade a friend from leaving her rural home and taking up the same career. Her contention that such a career only serves to subject a woman to the whims and abuse of men is chillingly documented in the course of the correspondence, as a new male driver who appears to be a serial killer of women takes the wheel on the bus route she is assigned to.1 In the end, the man gets his comeuppance, although what amounts to a happy ending, in both this and the last story in the volume, may seem appalling to contemporary Western readers.

The final story, "La mujer de Martes" (The woman from Mars), which, like the first, is novella-length, is the most intricate of the three. It begins with a newspaper article about the discovery of a charred body after a fire in one of the outbuildings of a girls' school, and proceeds breathlessly through a series of follow-up reports, which document an increasingly bizarre and inexplicable series of events, including disappearances, a hanging, and the desecration of a cross inside a nearby Catholic church. Only after these events have been catalogued is the explanation teased out, in the form of a long letter from one of the students at the school (the gangly misfit whose nickname gives the story its title) to its headmaster, a pious bachelor who has inexplicably gone insane since the fire. As in the previous story, there is a woman wronged and vengeance to be exacted in disturbing — and in this case extraordinarily elaborate — fashion.

Daniel Aguilar notes that those stories are written from a feminine, almost feminist viewpoint, and there is something to that, bearing in mind the limitations of the time and place (1930s Japan). What is certain is that men don't come off well at all; if not all entirely depraved, they are nevertheless very bad at running things. But there's something more here too, a sense that the world is essentially amoral and devoid of meaning. The men, blinded by lust and vanity, may not acknowledge that fact, but the women know it all too well. In the words of Utae Awakawa, the "woman from Mars":
Little by little I began to feel with greater and greater intensity that the emptiness that lay in the depths of my heart and the emptiness that could be found above the blue sky were exactly the same thing. And I began to think, as well, that the act of dying was something simple and of no importance.2
This bleak sense of futility that emerges over and over throughout these stories may perhaps owe something to Buddhist thought, but in its incarnation into 20th-century urban Japan it takes on a character that is very much Yumeno's own brilliant creation.

1 The bus is staffed by two employees: the man at the wheel (conductor in Spanish), and the female cobradora or revisora who accepts tickets and provides assistance to the driver.
2 My translation from the Spanish version.

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