“Of dogs and walls” by Yuko Tsushima has two short stories which have never been translated into English before. It comes under the fifty new books published last year, for celebrating the pioneering spirit of iconic Penguin Modern Classics series. Coming from varied backgrounds, each book offers its own contemporary flavor. In this book, Yuko Tsushima shows how fleeting memories and dreams shape our lives.
About the author:
Satako Tsushima(1947-2016), known by her pen name Yuko Tsushima, was a contemporary Japanese fiction writer. She was the daughter of the famous novelist Osamu Dazai. Coming from a writing background and also earning many prestigious literary prizes throughout her career, New York Times titled her as one of “the most important Japanese writers of her generation”. Her work has been translated to over a dozen languages.
This book is of interest for:
- Contemporary literature lovers.
- Anybody looking for a glimpse of Japanese Literature.
- People looking for Realistic Fiction.
Premise of the book:
“Of dogs and walls” is translated by Geraldine Harcourt. The book has two short stories of around 25-30 pages each, first one named, “The Watery Realm” was published in 1983 and second one “Of dogs and walls” in 2014, two years before she passed away. The gap between the two stories could be easily seen in the book. Within fifty pages, this book has a lot to say. Coming to the stories:
- The Watery Realm:
The story unfolds with a mother(narrator) who buys a plastic castle for her son’s fish tank. Observing the fish tank, the story of “The Dragon Palace” comes into her mind in which a man returns from The Dragon Palace inside the water after getting drowned years ago. He discovers that time had a different cadence down below, where a hundred days looked like a hundred years. All these years, he had been in water’s intimate embrace. This story reminds her(narrator) of her father who also got drowned in water along with his young lover, when she was one year old.
” We mortals who dwell on land have always imagined, at the bottom of the sea, another world, where we are not meant to go, chill and beautiful. The sea does seem a far more likely place of concealment than the sky.”
Then, she (narrator) thinks about her past, her childhood and her fear of water. In her childhood, the notion of ‘underground water’ puzzled her. She pictured the ground on which she trod, as a sheet over an expanse of water. She feared that ground might sink anytime and water will show itself, so she preferred walking slowly on the ground. When children loved stepping in puddles, she stayed out of all this, fearing that she might fall into the depths below. She also recalls how much safer she felt in graveyards than any other place because they were porous and she thought there wouldn’t be any random wild eruptions of the groundwater in the graveyards. She then sees the umbrella which her mother has left behind. Her mother who used to scold her as a child for being forgetful is now leaving things like that, this habit of her mother is also bothering her.
The story then shifts to her (narrator’s) mother perspective, who being a widow and a single mother, hated walking to the local well and fetching water many times a day. She hated being dependent on the water and wondered if human beings could live without it. As she carried water, it seemed to weigh a lot and she used to think that Suijin, the water deity, was trying to seize it back. She also thinks that Suijin had cast a spell on her husband who gets drowned. She is obsessed with water and she can’t escape the very water that took away her husband.
“Sometimes I thought what fools we humans are- it’s living on land that causes all these woes; if we need water so badly we should just return to it, then we’d be set, wouldn’t we?”
The story ends with the narrator thinking about her mother, who used to vent out her anger. So, no matter how hard she tries in the present she could never forget that image of her mother during her childhood. She thought of her mother as a person who hated and feared the outside world as she held her children tightly, who faced the world with disdain, thinking that no one would look down on her. She also ponders over the fact that no matter how much she tries, she will never be able to understand her mother’s true feelings. In short, both the mother and the daughter have a different perspective of the years they spent together.
“People depend on their misfortune. We curse them, but actually we’re wedded to them, proud of them.”
- Of dogs and walls:
This story which is also the title of the book starts with a lady (narrator) seeing an oddly-shaped hole in a freestanding wall, the hole looked like somebody had walked through the wall. This reminds her of a dog named Perry, which belonged to her mother years ago. Perry also slipped through a wall into her mother’s life. Yuko Tsushima uses the term Walker-through-Walls as a metaphor for memories that keep walking through just like that.
Just like seeing that symbol, the lady in the story gets lost in her past. The lady muses about her childhood, her mother and most importantly her brother who dies as a result of mental disability. While the narrator talks about dogs that influenced her childhood, the story about her brother gradually develops, who seems to be suffering from Down’s syndrome, based on the comments made in the book, as nothing is said directly in the book.
She also muses about her adventures with her brother, as they used to trespass houses trying to get a glimpse of the gardens lying behind those walls and also the wall with a forbidden door that separated her house from her neighbor’s. She comes to know about a boy living next door whom she has never met. She addresses him as young master and dreams about talking to him.
As the story unfolds, she talks about the wall that was built in her brother’s school, so that normal children don’t see the sight of special kids. And she also remembers the day when her brother died, the neighbors came through that door. She was more concerned about the young master and how he came through that door rather than the cold dead body of her brother. She is so shocked to experience this feeling that she feels ashamed of herself and keeps it as a secret to herself. Thus, creating a wall around her.
Both the stories clearly resembles the life of Yuko Tsushima. In the first story, the reference of the narrator’s father is to her father, Osamu Dazai who committed suicide by drowning himself when she was one year old. Also, the tragic death of her own son who drowned in a bathtub while she was in the other room is in some ways a reason behind her writing that story. In the second story too, the impaired brother reference is of her own brother who died early while suffering from mental disability. The Japanese writers have the quality of writing the stories, derived from their own lives and Yuko Tsushima is not behind in this legacy.
I was totally mesmerized by her metamorphical writing style. After page one, you will forget about the fact that you are actually reading a translation. Although Yuko Tsushima has cited Tennessee Williams behind her literary influence for the short stories, the clever twist of narratives in her story reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s writing style.
Even though she never wrote under a label but her works always talked about feminism in one way or other. All her works, be it the Territory of light or the Child Of Fortune, have very similar characters of single mothers and their struggles in facing the societal pressures and norms of the outside world. She mainly focused on writing about the psychological impacts on those who are abandoned by the world.
In the book, I totally loved the first short story especially the references used in the form of Japanese Mythology and terms. I could relate to this story a lot, because I had similar dreams of water and sometimes when I think about the huge amount of water resting on the surface we are living on, it gives me shivers.😀 It also made me ponder over greater questions of life, like escaping death, which in many ways, is similar to escaping the necessity of water in our lives. How we can never escape the inevitable things in our lives, no matter how much we hate them. This was a fascinating story for me.
The second story, even though it was the title of the book, I didn’t enjoy it as much as the first one. But, I really liked the metaphors used in the form of walls, that we build around us. Just like the girl, and her fantasies which she could never share with her mother, every person has that box of memories that are personal to them and they can not share it with anyone.
I am very thankful to the Penguin Modern series, for bringing into light such amazing contemporary works, which get unnoticed quite often. This short read of short stories is a perfect book to start if you want to know about Yuko Tsushima’s writing style and if you are new to Japanese Literature. Do try it!