Shot by Both Sides, by Meisei Goto, translated by Tom Gill

Counterpoint Berkeley, 2009, 215 pages, ISBN-10: 1582434735

Review by Adam House

Watching the river flowing under Ochanomizu Bridge, we read as Akaki (our narrator) muses on bridges mentioned in the stories of Kafu, and also that of Gogol, another of his favourite authors. He’s on the bridge waiting to meet a man called Yamakawa, we follow his thoughts on Gogol and that in his student days he had a khaki overcoat, where is it now? Lost, mislaid? As his story begins, we learn that he’s forty years old and has two children, married for twelve years, he leads a vigil like existence, but a vigil for what we are not sure. Arising early that morning the phrases, “the early bird catches the worm” and the Japanese equivalent, “Early rising is three pence/mon to the good,” echo in his thoughts, and thinking about his old coat leads him to think over Gogol’s story ‘The Overcoat’, his name resembles that of the hero too, Akaky Akakievich. His fascination with Gogol is touched upon again, “To me, Gogol wasn’t just some Russian guy who lived over one hundred years ago. And he wasn’t just a ‘great writer of Russian Literature,’ nor the founder of realism. You might say he was my fate.” Thinking back on the overcoat he had worn some twenty years ago, Akaki begins to recall his childhood. The details of his memories seem difficult to grasp, but it’s as if he were turning the dial on the lens of a microscope, trying to focus in to get the clearest image possible of past events, his thought patterns sometime seem to arrive randomly, “What on earth have I been thinking about all this time? True I’ve stayed alive this whole time so I must have thought about things.” He reflects on the nature of his thinking.
The novel follows the narrator on his pilgrimage in an attempt to track down his old overcoat, which he likens to a pilgrimage of sorts, he makes the contrast to Kobo-Daishi (Kukai), with a slight humour. Returning to the places of his student days, we revisit with him to the old three-mat room he used to rent from the Ishida family, when he lived with the Koga brothers. This was at the time when he first arrived in Tokyo to study at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, the same university in which the novelist Futabatei Shimei studied Russian. Chapter by chapter we go back further into Akaki’s past, things that he encounters as he retraces the places he went to twenty years ago in search of his coat reignite memories of his childhood, the layered Sebald-like narrative isn’t too far away, although this novel was first published in Japan in 1972. As Akaki travels along the Keihin-Tohoku train line revisiting places and people from twenty years back, visiting his old pawn shop – in pursuit of his coat, and seeing a cinema poster provokes memories of his childhood in northern Korea, where he was born in the early 1930’s. He recalls the house they lived in with its ondol underfloor heating, his old schools, and also the bombing raids as the Soviets advanced. He looks back at himself as a boy and remembers sensing something much larger than himself coming to an end. He recalls listening in to what he thinks was the Emperor’s muffled broadcast through a neighbour’s wall and recounts the night he and his brother burn their collection of magazines and records of Japanese ballads, singing the songs as the flames engulf the albums, clinging onto his father’s army beret, but that too gets consigned to the flames. His grandmother had died in a concentration camp, and their house is impounded by the Korean civil guard, “take what you can in your hands, leave in thirty minutes,” they are informed. His story of repatriation changes to that of a confession addressed to his elder brother, telling him of his inner feelings and thoughts. The narrative interweaves between flowing points in time and history, a history not perceived in the grand scale, but seen in the eyes of a boy whose watching history move as if on an opposite shore, or parallel.
This novel is many things, informative, moving, enigmatic, literary and at times has a subtile philosophical humour. Goto Meisei drew from personnel experience in writing Akaki’s story, and in 1981 won the Tanizaki Prize for his novel The Courtesan Yoshino. This translation of Goto, hopefully not the last in English work we’ll see, by Tom Gill, is seamless.

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