Fumiko Hayashi: 浮雲 (Floating Clouds)
This is a grim novel about unhappy love set in Vietnam during the latter part of World War II and in Japan, mainly Tokyo, in the period after World War II. Yukiko Koda has been living in Tokyo, away from her family, while she studied and then worked as a typist. She was staying with Iba, a relative, and his wife. One night, Iba comes into her room, puts a cloth in her mouth and rapes her. He continues to visit her regularly. She is both disgusted, particularly feeling ashamed because of his wife, but also excited and, indeed, looks forward to his night-time visits. Eventually, she realises that she must get away and gets a job in Vietnam at the quinine cultivation garden of the Pasteur Laboratory in Da Lat. On her way there, she stops off in a hotel in Saigon. There she sees a Japanese man who looks quite attractive but he ignores her. When she arrives in Da Lat, she sees him again at the Institute where she is to stay. Again he ignores her, till they are introduced by the boss. He is Tomioka and, by this stage in the book, we know that they have been lovers. There is one other man staying there, Kano. She soon finds out that Tomioka is married and has a wife back in Japan while Kano is single. Inevitably, both men fall for her, though Hayashi is at pains to point out that she is fairly plain. However, it seems, at least initially, Kano is madly in love with her while Tomioka is more interested in a sexual liaison and not much more. Indeed, we later learn that he has got the Vietnamese maid, Hu, pregnant during his stay there. Yukiko is more interested in Tomioka and carries on a liaison with him behind Kano’s back.
The book actually starts with Yukiko’s return to Japan after the war. Hayashi gives us an excellent portrait through Yukiko of a defeated people and a defeated country, with grim, unhappy faces, shortages and housing in ruins. Tomioka had told Yukiko that he loved her and planned to leave his wife and marry her. However, when she gets to Tokyo there is no immediate sign of him, so she goes off to the only place she knows, Iba’s house. However, when she gets there, Iba is not there and other people are living in the house. There is still a room with Iba’s stuff in it and they expect him to return but do not know when. They allow her to stay in the room and she makes a place to sleep. She will later steal some of his stuff and sell it, as she is broke. Meanwhile, she tracks Tomioka down. He indicates that he is no longer willing to leave his wife and we learn that he is unsure about his relationship with Yukiko. Despite this, they go to a hotel and have sex. However, he is more interested in raising money and starting a timber business than settling down with Yukiko.
The rest of the book is about their on-again, off-again relationship. Tomioka seems to want to break off with Yukiko but, every time he tells her that he is going to do so, he is back again, unable to completely let her go. Yukiko is struggling to survive in the difficult post-war conditions. Tomioka, who has very little money himself, gives her some money. She meets an American, Joe, and has a brief fling with him and he gives her some money. However, she cannot bring herself to get a proper job, still hoping that she is going to settle down with Tomioka. Eventually, Iba reappears. He has got involved with a new religion called Ohinata, whose main aim seems to be to make money for its leading members, yet surprisingly does well. He offers her a job as his personal assistant and, eventually and reluctantly, she accepts as she needs a job and it is comparatively well paid.
What is interesting about this novel is the characters of the two protagonists. Tomioka clearly has some sort of moral compass. He feels very guilty about his treatment of his wife, of Hu, of Yukiko and of O-sei, a married woman he and Yukiko meet when they go to a spa. He is by no means a compulsive womaniser, yet seems unable to resist any woman who comes across his path who might be vaguely interested in having a sexual relationship with him. He has sex with them all, gets two of them pregnant and generally is unhappy in his relationship with them and makes them totally miserable. Yet, he continues to pursue them with vague promises which, at the time, he seems to believe in but which we know he will never keep. Yukiko, of course, is no saint. She willingly had sex with Iba and enjoyed it. She has an affair with Tomioka, knowing full well that he is married, and continues to pursue him back in Tokyo, more or less believing in his promises. She also has a fling with Joe but drops him like a hot potato as soon as Tomioka reappears. She is even happy to work for Iba, knowing full well what he did to her earlier and knowing full well that his religion is a complete fake and merely a way of extracting money from the gullible. She even considers having a relationship with Kano, back in Tokyo, when Tomioka disappears from the scene.
As I said at the beginning, this is a grim novel. No-one is happy, except for Tomioka and Yukiko when they reminisce about their life in Vietnam after they are back in Tokyo. They dream of being back in Vietnam, where the weather and the environment were nicer, at least for them, though Hayashi makes no bones about the ill-treatment meted out to the native population by the Japanese military and the destruction of the forests by the Japanese. However, we do not actually see them during their affair in Vietnam and, certainly back in Japan, neither of them is happy and, apparently, nor is anyone else. That morality takes something of a back seat during wartime is inevitable and we are aware of this in novels from all over the world. Hayashi, herself, had something of a colourful romantic life, though there is no reason to think that this novel is autobiographical. However, she did make it clear that she was writing about the emptiness in women’s hearts at that time and this novel certainly reflects that.
First published in 1951 by Rokkō Shuppansha
First English translation by Information Publishing in 1957
Translated by Lane Dunlop