The Other Side of Opulence – Books

Tokyo, Ueno Station
By Your Miri

Impedimentary. 186 pages

A sad story, crossed by failure and personal loss, tells this novel by the Japanese writer Yu Miri, awarded in the United States with the National Book Award for translated literature 2020.

Its narrator is the spirit of Kazu, a lost soul who can remember his life, transport himself to the past and observe (and listen) what happens in a present to which he no longer belongs.

Before leaving this world, Kazu was homeless, one of the many “homeless” who lived in tents or shacks in Tokyo’s Ueno Park after the outbreak of the financial crisis that shaped the beginning of the 21st century.

His previous existence had begun in 1933 (the same year as that of the now Emperor Emeritus Akihito) in northern Japan, in a family of fishermen and farmers, from whom he distanced himself by marrying. From there, to earn a living, he became one of the many workers displaced to the capital to find employment in the construction boom that prepared for the 1964 Olympic Games. For four decades he lived away from his family, with two children whom he barely knew and a wife with whom he barely lived.

Kazu’s spirit, attentive and ubiquitous, is a storyteller with pretensions. He alternates childhood memories with current observations, evokes precise and even poetic anecdotes intertwined with the record of the often nondescript dialogues of the visitors to the park where he spent his last years on Earth. Although the novel manages to defend itself on its literary merits, it also functions as a critical testimony, not always perceived in the West, on the other side of the Japanese “economic miracle”. “Being poor was the greatest of crimes. And the punishment for that crime was to be poor”, is commented in a devastating passage.

It is not usual to come across these stories of uprooting, hardship, loneliness and isolation located in one of the great economic powers of the planet, and which in this case function merely as the prologue to the final collapse -personal and social- that would be unleashed from 2008, compounded by the devastating aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

“When you fall into a hole, you always have the chance to climb out of it,” observes the narrator. But if you slip and fall off a cliff, it’s already impossible for you to recover. The only thing that can stop that anguish is death. But until then you have to keep living, earning just enough to survive.”

Yu Miri (Tsuchiura, 1968) was born into a family of Korean origin. She was a stage actress and assistant director and went on to form her own theater company. She has written six novels, the first of which, autobiographical in tone, generated great controversy in her country, as well as a dozen books of essays or memoirs. She is a single mother and in 2020 she converted to Catholicism.