Japanese Literature Challenge 8

The Sound of The Mountain

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Do mountains make a sound? I’m a Midwestern girl, and I know more about plains than I do about mountains. But when I consider Shingo telling us his story, I can see the allusion to the mountain he fancies he hears making a deep, low rumble.

A mountain is implacable. It doesn’t move, unless bits of it crumble away, or it combusts from within as a volcano. And Shingo seems very passive to me.

His daughter-in-law, Kikuko, who lives with him and his wife, is passive, too. She waits quietly for her husband to come home at night, drunken, and leaving his mistress behind. She serves her father-in-law with apparently effortless kindness. She watches her sister-in-law’s children with care and grace. It is no wonder that Shingo seems more attached to her than to anyone else in his home.

His blood kin were not as he would wish them to be, and if they were not able to live as they themselves wished to live, then the impact of the blood relation became leaden and oppressive. His daughter-in-law brought relief. p. 37

Kikuko, although a daughter-in-law, seems irresistibly attractive to Shingo. It could be because she is beautiful, or kind, or abandoned emotionally by her husband. But she serves her father-in-law tea every morning, and brings him gifts from her childhood home, and in every way ingratiates herself to him. Maybe she is relieved to find affection of any kind, since her husband is so caught up with his mistress.

This is a quiet sort of book, deceptively simple. It bears heavy themes, however, about a family whose members are ashamed of one another, themes of longing, disloyalty, and subsequent embarrassment.

When Shingo’s son makes his wife pregnant, she has an abortion because she cannot seem to bear being pregnant while her husband has another woman. When his mistress also becomes pregnant, and intends to keep the illegitimate child, Shingo is horrified, and angry for the way his son has treated Kikuko.

But what can he do? He is 62 years old, an old man in his own eyes, who is past the capability of having a young lover of his own, past the capability of easily remembering things, and wholly incapable of changing his life or anyone else’s life in his family. Happiness is elusive to him. Happiness seems to elude them all.

In a way I have come to expect from Japanese novels, there is no resolution at the last page. We come into his life in the middle of his 60’s, we leave many years later, not seeing anything change in Shingo’s family. We are left with the impression that life will carry on as it always has for them: troubled, ineffective, ungrounded.

I think the most distressing quote I came upon was one little line on the bottom of page 235. “He had contributed to no one’s happiness.” That’s all. If I was reading quickly, I may have missed it. But I think that’s the point of the whole novel, and for me that is the worst thing that can be said when looking back over one’s life.

I read this book for Tony’s January in Japan, as well as my own deplorably neglected Japanese Literature Challenge 8. Find other reviews here, here, and one from several years ago, here.