Trinity, Trinity, Trinity
By Kobayashi Erika
Translated by Brian Bergstrom
Astra House (2022)
Review by Chris Corker
There are a number of reasons for us to be afraid of nuclear radiation, but two in particular distinguish it from our other fears: its invisibility and its longevity. The first fuels paranoia, the second a sense of futility. Japan, the only country to have been the victim of an atomic bomb, continues to have a complicated relationship with nuclear material. In fact, it is difficult to overstate the ambivalence towards atomic energy and its role in a sense of modernising progress. For better or worse, nuclear power and radiation are now part of the Japanese national psyche. The 2011 Fukushima disaster was thus not an isolated disaster, but a resurfacing of an enduring social anxiety. Just as with the lifespan of radiation itself, an end to this ongoing threat can seem incomprehensible.
Trinity, Trinity, Trinity by Kobayashi Erika is a rumination on incomprehensibility. This sounds like a bit of a contradiction, but all philosophical speculations begin by trying to understand what cannot be understood, and this book is as much a philosophical speculation as it is a novel. Trinity takes place during the run up to the 2020 Olympics (although, being written before the games, much is imagined) and centres on a grandmother suffering from dementia, in addition to her daughter, who seems to be on the verge of her own form of physical and mental breakdown. Both of these deteriorative conditions are somehow linked to radiation, the fear of which is beginning to divide society at large. As elderly people begin to carry radioactive rocks, a symptom of a new onset of dementia dubbed ‘turning Trinity’, the stigma around both radiation and old people deepens.
While the emotional core of the novel is a grounded and touching tale of ageing and the fading of memory, housed within the feverish prose is an attempt to come to terms with the aforementioned nuclear heritage. This is not a novel about what will happen if the world becomes irradiated; this is a story about what we have to do now that the world is already irradiated. How can we, as human beings, live with this invisible threat, and how can we respect radiation without revering it?
Also a visual artist by trade, Kobayashi states on her official website that the aim of her work is to represent the invisible. In one section of Trinity, this is illustrated by the tireless efforts of Marie Curie to give a face to the radium she had proved only in theory, but alongside this is the repeatedly mentioned ‘unseen force’ that thrives in invisibility, opening doors, running taps and even unlocking mobile phones without the need of touch. While the danger of Curie’s work was plain to see in her physical deterioration, this ‘unseen force’ is an apparently benign convenience that is in truth still dependent on the invisible threat of nuclear radiation.
With convenience and invisibility comes ignorance, and this forms the backbone of the generational conflict in the book, a war waged between the elderly who want to remember the cost of the modern world and the young who want to forget it. The rocks that the old carry are thus physical representations of a phenomenon the young have forgotten altogether. Even while it remains.
An old man arrested for handing out irradiated bills delivers the following message in his online manifesto: ‘If making visible the suffering and anguish of the invisible is terrorism, then call me a terrorist. This is the beginning of the revenge of the invisible’.
Revenge is a dish best served cold, but tensions run hot as the younger generation fight to combat this retribution, even if its only purpose is to get them to acknowledge a hidden reality.
The novel itself, which never condescends to its reader, does not shy away from incomprehension but rather embraces it as the first step towards understanding. The timeline is not always clear, giving the feeling that what is happening is not only happening now but always, that the future and past have seeped into the present like poison. The 1964 and 2022 Tokyo Olympics form two points on a Mobius strip so that celebration always leads to concealment (and concealment to celebration): spiriting away the homeless before the opening ceremony, the big questions of societal ill are forgotten in the fanfare. This concealment leads the mother’s teenage daughter to conclude that reality seems ‘obviously fake’.
Much of the world we live in now is invisible or, we could say, virtual; but it is only when we stop taking these virtual things (those ‘unseen forces’) for granted that we can question at what cost comes their invisibility. This effort to know – even to know ugliness – is key in Trinity.
Informed by contemporary reality and painstaking in its historical research, there is a different kind of incomprehension at work outside of the narrative. Translator Brian Bergstrom has done an admirable job capturing Kobayashi’s quick-fire style, what we might call “memo-prose”. The novel is so stuffed with imagery that it leads to a literary FOMO in which the reader suspects some deeper truth just beyond their reach. A familiarity with modern Japanese society and its challenges, especially the ageing population and controversies surrounding TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company) during the Fukushima disaster, however, should help those feeling overwhelmed. Knowledge of the Manhattan Project would also be a plus, but a certain newly-released blockbuster movie will help with that.
Even for the uninitiated, the array of imagery and metaphor in Trinity is enticing. Images cascade in the blinding inundation of a death dream. Lead, the Rising Sun, a shaking bed. A black cylindrical object atop a Mahogany chest of drawers. There is a heavy metal band named after the late pastor John Donne, whose final sermon was considered a pronouncement of his own demise. Several times an isolated countdown runs down the page.
But counting to what? Ignition, detonation, extinction. The music of an alarm clock is the tolling of a bell. A chime announcing a birth and a death at the same time. The two are conflated so that the ejected ovarian eggs of the mother are always accompanied by a deluge of blood, ‘flowing forth to be flushed away, to disappear completely, meaninglessly, creating nothing, being nothing’. As with Tawada Yoko’s equally haunting The Last Children of Tokyo (2014), the future for subsequent generations is bleak, the noted miscarriage of Marie Curie’s own baby a dark premonition for those that follow in an age of nuclear contamination.
The thought of a line of female descendants is something that soothes the mother, but as the novel draws to a close it becomes clear that her line has been cursed to suffer her own fate of destructive morbidity. A Donne poem quoted in Trinity ends: ‘one short sleep past, we wake eternally. And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die’. The only eternal entity here seems to be radiation, levels of which, Kobayashi writes, are still detectable in the graves of the long ago deceased.
While the symbolism of the rock as radioactive vessel is most apparent in Trinity, an arguably more important symbol is that of fire, the most enigmatic of humankind’s symbols. Just as Oppenheimer and his scientists in New Mexico gathered around ‘the gadget’ and hoped for a flame, so the characters here crowd around the television for a glimpse of the Olympic torch. As she does so well elsewhere, Kobayashi manages to intertwine two Promethean conflagrations representing progress and its cost. ‘As long as there was fire,’ thinks the mother in Trinity, ‘they were powerless not to fly into it’. Detonation and jubilation seem to go hand in hand.
To return to the epigraph at the beginning of this review, Trinity, Trinity, Trinity asks how the Japanese people can hope to contest with an invisible and undying threat. Perhaps the simplest answer the book has to offer is that we must first recognise that it exists. Kobayashi has written a novel that does a truly impressive job of threading modern anxieties into a compelling story that is informed by both wartime history and contemporary societal issues. Like all good works of art, this one does not preach but asks the reader to begin searching for answers themselves, because to understand the incomprehensible you must first admit that you don’t know what it is.
And then, that you want to learn.